Umaga's warrior spirit: 'Tough times don't last, tough people do'

All Black Tana Umaga's fiercely competitive play courts controversy, but is sustained by a code of respect
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The Independent Online

All he had to say, to put out the flames of the controversy that burns on, was that maybe he should have run over to the fallen Brian O'Driscoll in last Saturday's first Test and said he was sorry that it had ended like that for the Lions captain. Umaga's team-mate Justin Marshall had, after all, managed such a gesture, offering a consoling pat to the Lions captain as he was put on the cart and driven out of the action. Now surely Umaga would give a little lip service to such sentiment before what is expected to be one of the defining performances of his ferocious career in Saturday's second Test.

Instead, and for those who perhaps should already have known, Tana Umaga made something very clear. He plays only one part. It is the one of Tana Umaga. It involves exceptional commitment – and very few regrets.

"I play as hard as I can," he said. "It was an unfortunate incident – a complete accident – but these things happen." But why didn't he try to soften the rage of O'Driscoll and the momentum of the Lions spin doctors so anxious to deflect from the scale of their defeat? "I felt I had a more important role for my team at that stage. Play was stopped for a lengthy period so early in the game," he said. "I had some things to sort out. My allegiance is to the All Blacks. I'll try to make contact with Brian O'Driscoll, and when I do it will be between him and me.

"It's been a few difficult days and the most disappointing thing was to read [in a leading New Zealand newspaper] that the incident had been bad for the name of the All Blacks – I realise we are role models, and we try to raise standards." Still, he reflected, "tough times don't last ... tough people do."

How tough is Tana? He was playing first-team rugby league for his local club in Wellington, Wainuiomata, when he was 16 in a game against one of the most formidable Australian sides, Manley, and his coach and close friend Ken Laban remembers it not so much as a debut as a rumble of the earth.

"Physically, competitively, Tana is a beast ... he is a child of the Great Migration [when thousands of Pacific islanders settled in New Zealand in pursuit of expanding labour opportunities]. He has the highest moral standards in his personal life but on a rugby field he hits you as hard as he possibly can ... if you finish up in the hospital he might send you flowers, but he won't worry about you.

"To be honest, after the O'Driscoll incident he was probably thinking, 'Who's next, Gavin Henson?' No one needs to tell Tana there is a fine line between being a great rugby player and a thug. Tana isn't a thug – but he does play to the limits."

There is a code by which the 32-year-old Umaga lives, says Laban, and it was shaped in a square mile behind the big hill that separates Wainuiomata from Wellington and the waters of Cook Strait.

Laban gives you a tour of the parameters of Umaga's life, which are drawn in a tight radius on the side of the green hill running down to the sea. There is the rugby club where he thrived and drew the scouts in flocks, the Samoan church Kanana Fou where Umaga's labourer father took his family each Sunday, the school where he was the commanding athlete and finally, the Marae, the ceremonial community house where he was adopted when he married his Maori wife Rochelle.

In the Marae they have celebratory feasts, funerals and weddings, and in the rooms lined with ornate carvings there is fundamental respect for the warrior spirit.

Here, support for Umaga in the O'Driscoll controversy has been fierce. They say Tana would never do anything to discredit the spirit of his people. Cheating would do that, cheating as in ganging up with a team-mate and "spearing" a feared rival, as the Lions alleged in the pain of their captain's tour-wrecking shoulder injury and a defeat that has bitten deeply into their bones. What Umaga might do – they concede in Wainuiomata – is clear away a ruck with bulldozing vigour and not worry too much about the physical consequences. Johnny Lomax, who once played for the Canberra Raiders and who watched the young Umaga emerge so thunderously, is emphatic. "I've seen him play so many times," said Lomax, "and I've been amazed at his force and his strength ... but I've never seen him try to maim or hurt anyone. I don't believe he has that in him."

Umaga, who has played 65 Tests for the All Blacks since changing codes eight years ago and captained the team 12 times, says that when a "rugby room – OK, a trophy room" is completed in his house, he will certainly display the Pierre Coubertin Trophy for fair play he received for, ironically enough, stopping a game out of concern for the health of an opponent. When the Welsh flanker Colin Charvis was knocked unconscious, Umaga was the first at his side, rolling him into the recovery position and making sure that he had not swallowed his tongue.

When Umaga was caught by a television camera mouthing some industrial language after being trodden on in a ruck during one tour game, the first thing he did when he reached the team hotel was e-mail the Marae back in Wainuiomata to apologise. Recently, he accepted a key role in an organisation campaigning for fathers in the Polynesian community to take more responsibility for their children. He says: "Rugby has given me everything I have, and it has all my respect and if it has given me some influence, I will use it as well as I can. But I'll always be myself."

That is expected to be one of the fiercest prospects in all of sport at the "Cake Tin" stadium here on Saturday. Umaga says, "We were bloody good in the first Test, and one of my regrets is that my team-mates haven't received enough credit. Still, I think we can play even better, especially if the weather is dry."

His old coach and friend Laban says that he has never seen his protégé so fired. "Off the field he is a credit to himself and his people – on it, well, he will just bite your head off," says Laban. An apology, we now know, is not guaranteed.