Rugby: Umaga fends off Blues link

By Campbell Burnes

In-demand Counties Manukau coach denies any interest in assistant role if Kirwan comes calling.

Tana Umaga has found success with Counties Manukau at provincial level. Photo / APN
Tana Umaga has found success with Counties Manukau at provincial level. Photo / APN

The search for a new coaching team for Sir John Kirwan and the 2015 Blues will kick off in earnest next month, but it appears Tana Umaga has ruled himself out of contention.

The Counties Manukau coach was mentioned in media over the weekend as a possible replacement for the departing Sir Graham Henry and Mick Byrne, but Umaga, through a media spokesperson, said "there's no story".

Presumably that means he is happy where he is, having recently re-signed with the Steelers until 2016, thus ruling himself out of a shot at the top job at his former Hurricanes franchise. It may be that Umaga is content to bide his time, waiting for an opening as head coach at the Blues or Chiefs, having served his time as an apprentice under Milton Haig and in his early days with the clipboard at French Top 14 side Toulon.

Kirwan was not going to be drawn on whether Umaga was on his short list of candidates to call.

"I don't really want to talk about that at the moment. I think it's too early.

"I'm going to address that in about a month. This is a critical month for everyone in this competition. I'm sad that a couple of mates are leaving. I'll look at that in a month's time and go through the due process."

In theory, it would be very difficult for a head coach at ITM Cup level to also act as assistant at Super Rugby level, simply because of the length of the season, but not so long ago Liam Barry did just that, as Blues assistant to Pat Lam and also North Harbour head coach. Nick White is scrum coach at the Blues and assistant coach for Auckland.

John Plumtree had previously taken the role of Sharks Super Rugby and Currie Cup head coach, as did Naka Drotske with the Cheetahs. Henry himself, back in the day when Super Rugby was done and dusted by the end of May, was head coach of both franchise and province in 1996 and '97.

Kirwan's immediate concern was not 2015, but settling on a replacement midfielder after another injury crisis. Earlier this season his locking stocks ran dangerously low. Now he has Jackson Willison (4-6 weeks) and Francis Saili (6-8 weeks) out, which means they will not resume Blues action until after the June break.

Wider training group member Albert Nikoro, a versatile outside back, is also injured, with a cartilage tear in his knee.

Options are not plentiful, but would be worse if Ma'a Nonu were to go down.

"We've got some issues, but we've got some young guys in our franchise region, and we'll be looking to replace one of the injured in the next few days," Kirwan said. "George Moala has been playing a lot for us there this season, so he'll step straight in. Pita Ahki has started one game and a few off the bench. Also, we have the option of bringing Charles Piutau up from fullback, but we are not considering that yet, because we think he's playing so well in the back three."

Ahki was at centre for the Blues Development XV against their Chiefs counterparts last week in Auckland, while one position in was TJ Faiane, a talented player straight out of school who is in the New Zealand Under-20s. It might be too early to promote the latter, while 2013 Canterbury rep Marty Swart is another option.

The Blues are permitted to call for a full replacement if they have two injuries in the same position.

Exiting the Blues

• Mick Byrne 2013-14
• Graham Henry 2013-14

Tana Umaga's coaching CV
Toulon player-coach 2007-10, Counties Manukau assistant 2010-11, head coach 2012-13

- NZ Herald

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