Umaga on coaching: From Toulon to Pukekohe
April 30, 2014
Tana Umaga - now settled as a coach © Getty Images
As of June 1, three of the home nations' four countries will be coached by New Zealanders. When Vern Cotter finishes his time at Clermont Auvergne and journeys to Scotland, he will join Ireland's Joe Schmidt and Wales' Warren Gatland in what is becoming a Kiwi takeover of the northern hemisphere's most sought after coaching spots.
It is nothing new. At present in the PRO12, three of the four Irish provinces are managed by New Zealand-born coaches with the fourth an Australian. When the Cardiff Blues ditched Phil Davies, they were immediately linked with New Zealanders for his replacement with Jamie Joseph and Mark Hammett both reportedly in the frame. A third name in the mix was Tana Umaga, the former All Black captain who is doing remarkable things with Counties Manukau in Pukekohe on New Zealand's north island.
Umaga is not convinced there is one governing reason why there are these large numbers of Kiwi coaches on this side of the world and the current preference to look to the ITM Cup for new backroom blood. "It's perhaps down to our view on the game of rugby, but it's difficult to say, I don't know," Umaga told ESPN. "I know Joe Schmidt better than most, he's a great man, an astute thinker and loves the game. And maybe that's part of it? He's been an assistant in professional set-ups so he knows how it works and he's done his time. He's picked up a lot of knowledge from different areas and I imagine that's the same with Warren.
"We just love the game, we love to teach it and that's perhaps due to our backgrounds. A few of those guys have a teaching background so that helps when you deliver messages, as Graham [Henry] found with the All Blacks. But it's difficult to answer other than it's something we are born with. When you try and become an All Black it's all you think about. You can't get away from it as it's just on television the whole time. It's in our psyche. We always have thoughts about how to improve things in our heads."
While Umaga is currently looking after Counties in his native New Zealand, he cut his coaching teeth in Europe. Toulon are currently preparing for their second Heineken Cup final in as many years but life on the south east corner of France was not always a silverware-tinted experience. Umaga played seven matches there during the 2006-07 season while the team were in PROD2. It was a move that caused disbelief even for Mourad Boudjellal, a man who is now used to seeing the world's premier rugby players walk through their revolving doors.
Such was Umaga's impact at Toulon he was awarded the city's medal of honour and the following season he was back as player/coach with the brief of getting Toulon back into the Top 14.
"It was a bit of a baptism of fire," Umaga said. "In my first season there we gained promotion, but it would've been hard not to when you have players of the calibre of George Gregan, Andrew Mehrtens, Dan Luger, Anton Oliver and Victor Matfield."
It was not so easy the following campaign in the Top 14, 2008-09, as "a lot of the experienced players left. We had to try and blood a new group and we struggled throughout that season as we had a void of experience. We finished ninth, we wallowed close to relegation for a big chunk of that year. The eventual ninth-place was a big learning curve for myself both on and off the field. I learnt so much about coaching."
Midway through that difficult campaign Boudjellal appointed Philippe Saint-Andre as head coach for the 2009-10 season. Umaga was retained as backs coach and left to return to New Zealand in time for the 2010 campaign with Counties as player/coach once again. That role is less common now with teams preferring a coach solely focused on management but Umaga enjoyed the experience of preparing his team from Monday through to Friday and then helping execute the plan on the Saturday.
At Toulon alongside George Gregan in 2007 © Getty Images
"When I was playing in Toulon it was as a coach. We weren't doing well; we had some injuries so I had to think about who we could bring in. They would have to learn all the plays so instead I put myself in and backed myself the body would hold on. At times that helped when I was coaching. As coaches we always say we coach Monday through to Friday and on Saturday you sit back and there is little you can do as you don't have much influence from that time on but when you're on the field, you can influence bits here and bits there.
"You can implement the game plan as you want it. Understanding that has helped me as a coach. You have to make sure you cover all the details. I am big on preparation, making sure we understand roles and I try not to leave anything uncovered. But also in a way that we're not trying to pass on too much information so that players get bogged down."
The time at Toulon clearly helped mould the man he is today. In the 2013 ITM Cup campaign with Counties he made history by guiding the team to their first Ranfurly Shield triumph in their 58-year history. The level of celebration surprised even Umaga as people burst into the coaches' box but he is adamant despite the widespread acclaim he received for the feat, he is still learning the trade.
Despite reported overtures from the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, Umaga will remain at Counties until 2016 as he looks to continue his coaching education, a process which is continual.
"I have learnt to have faith, you cannot doubt yourself as a coach. In France there are tough times as there are huge expectations from supporters and owners. It's a little bit different in New Zealand as there is not so much one owner who you listen to and do things you have to live with. That was good to learn, I had a good relationship with Mourad Boudjellal. It was good to learn from him and it put me in good stead now.
"You have to hold certain values to you and push through. Having that faith is a big thing so you don't get bogged down. You can't worry about small stuff or it will eat you up which is not good for mind and body. So you try and separate it so when you finish work you try and switch off."
If Umaga does ever end up back in Europe, it will be a different man to the one who left in 2010, but do not expect that to happen anytime soon.
"I'm happy here. I've got two young daughters at primary school and another at secondary school and they're happy in Auckland. That plays a big part in my decisions so I don't know if I'll be going too far from here any time soon."
Enjoying the Ranfurly Shield success © Getty Images
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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