Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Coach Umaga a lure to sign new recruits

Former AB captain could see sought-after players change colours.
Sonny Bill Williams talks with Counties coach Tana Umaga during a training session in 2014. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sonny Bill Williams talks with Counties coach Tana Umaga during a training session in 2014. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Augustine Pulu is the first significant signing the Blues have made in 2016, but others will come and they will be lured by their respect for coach Tana Umaga.

Pulu, who won a solitary cap against the US in 2014, will give the Blues a dynamic presence at halfback - one of their problem positions. The Blues also need to strengthen their squad at lock as Josh Bekhuis is leaving for Lyon, and first-five, midfield and wing could do with more options.

Sonny Bill Williams and Umaga are close and the Blues are keen to see if they can prise the All Black midfielder from the Chiefs. Persuading Auckland lock Taleni Seu, who is also with the Chiefs, to come home is another obvious play.

A few years ago such a scenario would never have got off the ground. The presence of Umaga has changed that.

The former All Blacks captain is making progress with the country's perennial underachievers and while the Blues haven't been out-of-this-world better this year, they have played with more structure, heart and precision.

There's a long way to go on their journey, but there is at least confidence it has begun and with that, perception of the Blues has changed.

Recruitment has been an issue for the last six years. The Chiefs have been able to buy any player they want - Aaron Cruden, Williams, Dominic Bird, Charlie Ngatai and Damian McKenzie have all shifted to Hamilton because they believed in the abilities of coach Dave Rennie to produce a winning team.

The Highlanders, too, have been able to sign big-name players such as Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa, while Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock shifted South this year confident it would push them closer to national selection.

Traffic hasn't flowed North so much, though. The Blues have not been a side to which many of the country's top players have aspired. The central contracting model has made it hard for franchises to compete for players on financial terms. The key factors in players switching clubs are probable game time and faith in the respective coaching team.

This is why the Blues have tried and spectacularly failed over the last few years to sign players Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Daniel Carter, Mike Delany and Juan Martin Hernandez.

Even when the Blues bolstered the package with outrageous money, they couldn't get anyone to sign. There was little faith in the coaching abilities of Umaga's predecessors, Pat Lam and John Kirwan.

The players who have come have tended to be the ones with no other choices. Ma'a Nonu had run out of options elsewhere. Piri Wepu wasn't in high demand and Benji Marshall was a league recruit, interested to give rugby a try and Auckland was the only city he would settle in.

Pulu, who worked under Umaga at Counties for several years, was desperate to come to the Blues this year but the Chiefs wouldn't grant him a release. As soon as he could, he signed to hook up with his Counties mentor. That was the same with Tanerau Latimer, who was approached by the Blues last year.

"I'll be honest and say if Tana wasn't here I wouldn't have come back," says Latimer.

"I wanted to come back and play a big part. In talking to T [Umaga], a big part of my role here is to mentor the young sevens and I am happy to do that."

- NZ Herald

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