Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

How Tana Umaga turned George Moala's season around

It was a simple message from Blues coach Tana Umaga which got George Moala back on track this year.

With the memories of his debut test for the All Blacks in Apia last July still fresh in his mind, Moala, determined to reach those heights again, instead dug himself into a hole and the harder he tried to impress, the deeper he got.

"It was special, my first game, and I got a try, I was really happy," Moala said. "It was one of the best feelings I've ever had, being part of the greatest team in the world and to run on with the black jersey on, it was so special to me."

But after four matches at second-five for the Blues, Umaga dropped him and gave Piers Francis a go instead. The knee injury to Rene Ranger, and departure of Rieko Ioane to the sevens programme helped Moala back into the starting line-up but his new mindset was key and the performances returned due to a clearer head and a focus on the things that mattered.

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Moala, speaking after being named to start at centre for the All Blacks against Wales in Dunedin tomorrow, admitted he was trying too hard and that it needed a reminder from Umaga, himself a former All Blacks midfielder, to set him straight.

"Tana is always there to help me," Moala said. "He's always telling me 'just be yourself, don't try to be someone else, because other people might be telling you to. Just go out there and play the way that George Moala plays his game, that's why you were picked in the All Blacks'."

"From then on I've just been George. For the last three games I've played [for the Blues] I've been playing well so that's a confidence booster for me."

Moala, one of the most surprising selections for this third test after only making the initial squad as injury cover for Charlie Ngatai, can be a devastating runner and defender. His nickname, according to Blues teammate Charlie Faumuina, who will make a rare start at tighthead prop, is "George of the Jungle" for his strength in the gym.

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But even at Super Rugby level, strength and power aren't enough by themselves. They have to be harnessed and directed. Moala is very effective around the fringes but there is no point in running into defenders all evening, particularly those with the size of Jamie Roberts and skill of Jonathan Davies in the Wales' midfield.

Coach Steve Hansen has backed Moala, selected ahead of Seta Tamanivalu, to transfer his performances on the training field over the past three weeks to the Forsyth Barr Stadium pitch, and in the 25-year-old's favour will be the fact that he is playing outside Beauden Barrett and Ryan Crotty. Barrett's line-breaking ability is likely to attract the attention of the Welsh defence and therefore provide Moala with a little more room and in Crotty he has a reliable and organised midfield partner.

A good performance will put him firmly back into the midfield mix for Hansen's team. The return of Sonny Bill Williams from sevens and Ngatai from injury will put the squeeze on ahead of the Rugby Championship, but Moala has the potential to leap ahead of Tamanivalu in the pecking order.

"With the opportunity they've given me, I've just tried to make the most of it. I've tried every week to play, that was my mindset," he said.

"Just being here and training with the best centres, probably seeing what I can do with the talent in this team, that definitely gave me confidence, knowing I can play at this level.

"Training alongside them and getting the knowledge from them, that's what's helped me improve my game.

"At the start of Super Rugby I was struggling to find my feet. But I feel like in the last couple of games I've played I'm getting that form back from last year. It's important to stay focused and to soak up as much as I can from this camp so I can keep improving and transfer that back to the Blues."

- NZ Herald

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