Veteran Umaga handed Chiefs start
February 17, 2011
The Chiefs' Tana Umaga has beat out tough competition to earn his place © Getty Images
Former All Black skipper Tana Umaga is set to become Super Rugby's oldest ever player on Saturday after the 37-year-old was named in the Chiefs side to face the Brumbies.
In a fitting feature of the first round of the inaugural expanded Super Rugby season, a player who was present in the original edition of the Super 12 tournament will take his place in the Chiefs midfield.
Umaga, who last played in the competition four years ago, has been handed the No.12 jersey for the opening-round fixture in Canberra, with Dwayne Sweeney outside him in the centres.
Coach Ian Foster said the decision on the midfield combination had taken a bit of thought, with Sweeney, Jackson Willison and Save Tokula all having gone well in the pre-season matches.
"But Tana has been out of Super Rugby for a while and I think the best way to get true value out of him in this campaign is to give him that early taste of it," he said. "He's performed well. He's earned the right and I know he's looking forward to it."
Umaga, whose Test career brought him 74 caps, 21 as skipper, was part of the very first match of the-then Super 12 in 1996, between the Hurricanes and the Blues. He went on to turn out 122 times for the Hurricanes until 2007. He came back from France last year to be player/assistant coach of Counties-Manukau.
Foster said it was a significant adjustment for someone to return to Super Rugby after four years away, but he was confident Umaga would make it.
"Mentally he's strong, he's very experienced and he's been able to figure that out himself," Foster said. "That's what the preseason is about, to try to give guys a taste as early as we can. He'll be fine."
The Chiefs' starting lineup also features the inclusion of All Black winger Sitiveni Sivivatu, who spent most of last year on the sidelines recovering from shoulder and knee issues. While Sivivatu's problem knee was iced up after he came off against the Blues last Friday night, Foster said the move was precautionary.
"We're delighted he's back and he can't wait to get on the park," he said. "He's a very enthusiastic youngster."
Sivivatu will line up against another Fiji-born flyer in 22-year-old former Waikato representative Henry Speight, who will make his Super Rugby debut in the Brumbies' run-on side.
Apart from Umaga, others who will don the Chiefs' jersey for the first time are No.8 Fritz Lee, hooker Dan Perrin, lock Hayden Triggs and loose-forward Scott Waldrom, with Lee making his debut at this level. Perrin, Triggs and Waldrom, recruited from the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes respectively, will be on the bench.
Hooker Hika Elliot (hamstring), first five-eighth Mike Delany (facial cut) and Isaac Ross (chest) were not considered for selection because of niggles. All three are considered likely to be available for the away match against the Highlanders next week.
Foster said he was happy with where his squad were at on the eve of a new campaign. He said the players were aware they had to lift their intensity as they headed into the competition proper.
"We're more than comfortable," he said. "Like everyone, we're nervously excited about starting."
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