Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Back to future at Counties

All Black great Umaga has added steel to the abundance of talent in the region.

Counties Manukau coach Tana Umaga shows the way during training at Massey Park, Papakura. Photo / Dean Purcell
Counties Manukau coach Tana Umaga shows the way during training at Massey Park, Papakura. Photo / Dean Purcell

Hard work and honesty - they were the beams on which Counties' built their only success in the national rugby championship.

That was 33 years ago but similar principles encase this year's squad as they train at Massey Park in Papakura.

Former All Black captain Tana Umaga is in charge, a man whose methods are similar to those used by Hiwi Tauroa when he coached the province to that isolated NPC success in 1979.

Many of those men will hold a reunion in a fortnight when they will recount facts and embellish tales about their famous days in the red, white and black hoops.

They had gamebreakers such as Bob Lendrum, Pat Yates, Peter Goldsmith, Graeme Taylor and Ian McRobbie, but coach Tauroa insisted on strong foundations to allow that talent to flourish.

The union's only double centurion, Alan Dawson, recalls the enjoyment which ensued from their attention to detail and hard slog.

Tauroa made sure the squad was fit. That was one of his rugby fundamentals.

"We would then practice attacking moves from our goal line and had to run the whole length of the paddock and that became quite natural for us," Dawson said.

"Hiwi was a special coach and Barry Bracewell before him was the same.

"I think Tana Umaga is similar and people should not underestimate him or what he may be able to offer New Zealand rugby after his time with Counties.

"In his own quiet way, he seems to instil a killer instinct."

Earlier this season, Umaga took his Steelers' squad out to listen to Dawson and locking legend Jim Coe talk about the attributes which made Counties such a force. It was another tool in the coach's armoury as he worked his way into his first season in charge after being Milton Haig's deputy.

Umaga has not made significant changes but there have been tweaks. His primary selection targets are within the Counties boundaries. There was loads of talent but the task was to find those who understood hard work.

He also made a few critical signings.

Mahonri Schwalger brought his experience from Samoa and the Chiefs and added a selfless attitude. Kenyan Daniel Adongo was another great buy to bolster some missing ingredients in the second row.

"We had lots of youthful exuberance but did not have a harder edge about us, so Mahonri ticked those boxes," Umaga said.

"For us that is what men like Simon Lemalu and DJ Forbes bring, along with others like Mark Selwyn, Ronald Raaymakers and Fritz Lee."

Lee was gone with a broken arm but the Chiefs had noted his impact and signed him on again for next season. Young backs Baden Kerr and Bundee Aki had also picked up Super 15 contracts.

"Kids from around here can see that and know there are pathways from Tuakau College and Pukekohe High.

"If a team is successful, lots more eyes start looking at you," Umaga said.

At Eden Park tonight, the Counties Manukau Steelers will get a measure on their progress as championship division leaders when they play the premiership leaders Auckland.

When Umaga was embarking on his illustrious career, he remembered some advice from Sir Brian Lochore.

"He said the idea is not to be an All Black, it is to be a great one, week in and week out. As a player you should never be satisfied and always keep pushing."

When Tauroa, Dawson and Counties rumbled to the top of provincial rugby in the late 1970s, they embraced a similar philosophy. They loved playing three games a week. As a team that brought them closer and they stayed together and played for each other.

"It has been good for Counties' supporters when the kids can drag Mum and Dad along to watch and it works.

"The buzz around Counties has picked up.

"The guys are enjoying themselves and Tana has set some strong disciplines in that team and about performance as well."

The patter of sprigs down the concrete race at Pukekohe remains a strong memory for Dawson, the 20 seconds he got to zero in on the game before players burst on to the field.

"Up front our job was to match the others to give our backs a chance because that was our strength," he said.

"If the current side gets [parity] there, they'll do all right."

Umaga senses his own growth but does not want to quantify or pinpoint those areas.

He enjoys the role and wants to hang around.

Coaching has seeped into his system and he does not want to shunt it. He has found his methods and philosophy, like any player he has honed those skills.

"It is good to have your own say, to test your ideas and I enjoy passing on knowledge. It continues to interest me and teaching is in the family genes.

"I am never settled or have never taken things for granted; you can never stop learning."

Selection was the critical area, picking players with the right traits to suit the team environment.

Then he had to ask himself if he could teach those men and whether they would absorb his methods.

There was excitement out in the provinces, it was great to see more people wearing Counties' jerseys in the street and players getting recognised and patted on the back.

Rugby was growing in the Franklin district. "There is a buzz out here with the juniors and seniors. We will keep trucking on and there are long time people at this union who have been in the backrooms and are once again feeling good."

Umaga's preference was to go local for his players. However, that was not always possible. Agents had been on the inquiry trail, wanting their players to be involved.

"If they want to be part of us," Umaga said, "they can come and play club rugby and go from there."

Neighbours gearing up for their crossover duel

Auckland and Counties Manukau have had a decent but rare interlude to get sorted for tonight's crossover duel at Eden Park.

Both sides are on a bit of a run. Auckland's all-round game has started to dovetail while Counties are leading their championship division.

"Both of us like to move the ball but we'll see if conditions allow us to persevere with that idea," Auckland coach Wayne Pivac said.

"We are neighbours and neither have been too flash in the last few years but this is great for the area, even if we are in different Super rugby franchises.

"One side teams like to beat is always Auckland."

Young men litter the Auckland side - players such as Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Ben Lam, Joe Edwards, Sean Brookman and Ofa Tu'ungafasi.

Pivac would like to be coaching them more but an hour's run the other day was a rare chance in the congested programme.

Auckland were battered and had people like Daniel Braid they were trying to ease back into work from the bench after injury.

Five-eighths Gareth Anscombe was very motivated to show his value to prospective Super 15 franchises and emphasise to the Blues what they had discarded.

Auckland hoped their scrum, even with Pauliasi Manu on the bench, would be a weapon but that was not yet their best asset.

That part of Counties game would come under heat, coach Tana Umaga agreed. Their scrum had gained some respect and they were committed, but that was the battle they wanted to improve.

They had been worried about illness and injury and their focus was on getting settled for the championship playoffs.

"That is a bigger picture," Umaga said.

"In this game we want to limit our errors, show our skill level with the ball mixed with patience and composure.

"We are neighbours but there is always a little bit more to these derbies," he said.

Attack had been a focal point for both teams while their defence had not quite kept pace.

"We are up against the top division here but it is a chance for us to see what it is like in the premiership.

"We find out where we stand; otherwise it does not count too much."

- NZ Herald

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