Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Playing days over, Umaga feels like a coach at last

Ex-All Black captain says he can finally focus on preparing team.

Tim Nanai-Williams has proved a long-keeper.  Photo / Getty Images
Tim Nanai-Williams has proved a long-keeper. Photo / Getty Images

As Tana Umaga stands on the brink of his greatest achievement as a coach, he is thankful he isn't playing any more.

Umaga, a former All Blacks centre and captain, is reminded daily of his many years at the top level by constant aches and pains. And as he reflects on a season full of highlights as coach of Counties Manukau and looks towards the ITM Cup championship final against Otago at Pukekohe tonight, he reveals he now feels like a coach for the first time.

Last year he put the boots on for the final time with the Chiefs before focusing on coaching. Before that he was a player-coach at Counties and the same at Toulon in France, where he mentored an inexperienced Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield.

It can be hard for players to let go but now he has mentally moved on, which has helped enormously in his new career.

"This is my first year I've been focusing just on coaching since I've been back and it's been good," Umaga said after Counties' final training run of the year.

"I don't have to get on a bike and think about getting my body right. I can just totally focus on preparing the team as best I know how and hopefully that's good enough. It's given me time to concentrate on the players."

Umaga's team have attracted many plaudits this year for their exciting, open style. In 11 matches they have scored four tries or more eight times and finished eight points clear of the next best team, Otago, on the table.

They head into tonight's match as favourites to take the title and the 39-year-old would appear to be an excellent candidate as attack coach for the Crusaders next season in the wake of Daryl Gibson's resignation.

But Umaga says he is wary about trying to go to the next level because of his inexperience and because he is still making so many errors.

"I'm not sure I'm ready for that level. I'm still making mistakes here and I'm just fortunate these guys have helped me through making my mistakes and have got the results, so I don't want to be making those at the next level.

"I want to go up there totally confident in the ideas I have. I want to make sure that they're sound and have the backing of being tried and tested," he says.

That reticence didn't stop him from applying for the much more significant role as head coach of Munster - awarded to former Canterbury coach Rob Penney. But it is understood that after being shoulder-tapped by the Irish club he felt compelled to apply to prove his ambition.

Umaga constantly plays down his role in getting Counties to the top of the table - "I don't think of it as a big achievement for me because it's the boys who do most of the stuff and we just tag along on the back of it" - but there is no doubt he has been an important factor in making the province an attractive one to play for.

Figures released by the New Zealand Rugby Union this year show Counties with the highest uptake to the sport among young people and leaving for the bigger unions of Waikato or Auckland is no longer a given for developing players.

"We're a young side but in the past Counties-Manukau has had to rely on 18- and 19-year-olds. Fritz Lee has played over 50 games for Counties and he's only 23. Sherwin Stowers is the same - he's 26 and he's played nearly 50 games. Tim Nanai-Williams is close to that.

"What's happened in the past is they have relied on young players but no one else wanted to be here. They would develop a player and then all of a sudden he would be gone to a bigger union. Obviously with stalwarts like Simon Lemalu and Tim who have stayed here and shown there is a pathway from here to Super rugby, guys who are born and bred around this area are deciding to stay and that's great for us."

As for that attacking flair, sometimes that happens on the field whether Umaga and his fellow coaches like it or not.

"That flair is what Counties Manukau is renowned for, and we've just tried to hone that into making sure we're making good decisions - when to attack, when to try to consolidate and try to play some field position. We've tried to put some guidelines around it.

"It doesn't work most of the time, but sometimes they listen to us. We don't want to inhibit their natural instincts because that's what's got us to where we are now."

It's also got Umaga to where he is now; still making mistakes, but still learning - and waiting. APNZ

- APNZ

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