Rugby: Wellington prepares welcome for favourite son Tana

Tana Umaga during a pre-season outing for Counties-Manukau. Photo / Dean Purcell
Tana Umaga during a pre-season outing for Counties-Manukau. Photo / Dean Purcell

A typically fiery encounter in the deep south for Ranfurly Shield rights and a sentimental homecoming for a favourite son take the limelight as the national provincial rugby championship rolls into its second week.

The legendary, mana-heavy presence of Tana Umaga, albeit in Counties Manukau colours, will once again grace Wellington Stadium.

He last played there as a Hurricane on May 5, 2007, and there should be more than a few lumps in the throats of the fans there on Sunday as they welcome back the 37-year-old.

The Umaga factor is something last year's championship runners-up Wellington won't want to spend too much time thinking about, with priority given to reversing the slow start to a 20-11 opening win in heavy conditions over Tasman last weekend.

Umaga's influence was to the fore as last year's wooden spooners put in an inspired performance in round one, making Otago look ordinary in their 29-13 bonus point win which has them second in the standings behind Auckland.

As Wellington wing Hosea Gear said, his side won't want to focus too much on Umaga, who still has the wiles and guile to break open defences.

Counties showed they had other attacking options in Ahsee Tuala, Siale Piatu and sevens star Tim Nanai Williams, who all dotted down against Otago.

The TAB has refused to be swayed by sentiment, making Wellington $1.17 favourites with Counties Manukau a distant $4.50.

Saturday's Ranfurly Shield match at Invercargill offers Otago the opportunity for redemption after their bumbling performance at Pukekohe.

Otago have not got their hands on the shield for 53 years - and that alone should be reason enough to fire up for the match, although atonement in front of new coach Phil Mooney will also figure highly in the minds of the players.

Historical statistics favour Otago, who have won 141 of 230 matches against Southland since 1889 (there have been 10 draws). But they will also recall the agony of two unsuccessful shield challenges last season against Wellington (19-23) and Canterbury (16-36).

Southland kicked off their season with a solid 37-23 win over Manawatu, with their set pieces looking ominously locked in and loaded to support the flowing backplay which has earned them the $1.20 nod from the TAB, who rate Otago at $4.20.

Otago captain Alando Soakai, who will bring up 50 games for his province in the match, said the talking has been done after the debacle at Pukekohe, and it was now about "making sure we prepare well and get out there and perform well."

In other matches, Taranaki host Tasman and Hawke's Bay meet Bay of Plenty tomorrow, Auckland play Waikato on Saturday and Northland will look for their second straight win with a visit to North Harbour.

Injury-hit defending champions Canterbury kick off the action tonight against Manawatu, who beat them in the opening round two years ago.

- NZPA

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