Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Tough lessons come in a rugby cauldron

Tana Umaga. Photo / Getty Images
Tana Umaga. Photo / Getty Images

World Cup games and combat at Ellis Park are the summit of test rugby experiences, says former All Black captain Tana Umaga.

He led the last All Black side to play at the Johannesburg arena, in 2004, when they were beaten 40-26 in the first year of Graham Henry's coaching tenure.

The result was disagreeable but Umaga will never forget the experience and has pictures of himself and teammates with former President Nelson Mandela as a souvenir.

"It was awesome meeting him and the whole occasion was very special.

"It seemed like it was particularly crazy that day although I had seen most things and didn't get too fazed by it. I remember talking to George Gregan later at Toulon about it and the Wallabies had met Mandela as well.

"We think it was part of the Springbok plan that we got to meet this icon of the world and we were still thinking about it after we had done the haka.

"It takes some players time to refocus after something like that while the crowd and the occasion lift the Springboks. The atmosphere is something, it is a great ploy and South Africa get so motivated by the crowd and their history."

Umaga thought the All Blacks would be well prepared for those surroundings tomorrow when they return to Ellis Park for the Rugby Championship decider.

They would have talked through the scenarios and listened to Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore, who had first-hand experience of the turbulent scene in the city suburbs.

"They will know how to deal with it. They have played a lot of professional rugby and they come up with strategies to deal with all sorts of things these days," he said.

"They will talk about it and put their minds at rest about what is ahead of them."

The stadium has had some changes since the All Blacks last played there, but the players would still have to walk past a frothing horde of Springbok supporters from their bus to their changing rooms.

"The only other place I know like that was at Toulon where players had to walk past screaming fans who had been banging on the bus as well," said Umaga. "You could really feel the tension, you knew if the crowd did not want you to win."

Umaga recalled the Springboks were "on fire" in 2004 and forced the All Blacks back into their territory for much of the first half. They kept the pressure on and from one scrum he missed a tackle on Marius Joubert for the first of his three tries.

"They were on their way and we struggled," he said. "It was the last game in the Tri-Nations that year. We had won close games at home but then we lost to the Wallabies and Boks on the road."

Those results were a catalyst for change - a new leadership group was established in the All Blacks and the coaches set a new direction.

"We learned a lot of lessons from that Ellis Park cauldron. The only thing to compare are the big games at World Cups."

- NZ Herald

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