One Sunday in 1970s Wainuiomata, Tauese and Ropati Umaga went off to church. It was a bit strange they weren't taking the kids with them, thought 7-year-old Mike Umaga, but otherwise it seemed a normal Sunday.

But when his parents returned, they brought back a nine-pound baby boy.

That's how Mike Umaga remembers the day his little brotherJonathan - in Samoan Ionatana or "Tana" for short - arrived.

"They said, 'here's your new brother'. And that was it," says Mike.

The town of Wainuiomata has not changed too much since. It's a little bigger, the houses a little older, the damp from 30 valley winters a little more ingrained. Mr and Mrs Umaga still go to church every Sunday. But their Sunday boy has moved on.

Last week All Black captain Tana Umaga announced his retirement from test rugby. He would play another two years for the Hurricanes, he said, but wanted to spend more time with his family. And so began a week of obituaries for a man who is far from dead.

There's no doubt Umaga was a good player, an even better captain, and a great mentor. He has been labelled one of the greatest All Black captains ever. Former Hurricanes teammate Norm Hewitt says he's"a hero".

Forgiven seem to be Umaga's battles with the booze when he first made the All Blacks and his conviction for assaulting a woman. Everyone makes mistakes, says Hewitt. It's what you do with your life after you make the mistakes that shows your true character.

And Umaga's character seems deserving of respect. Friends describe him as humble, family-focused, honest, funny and driven. And very reserved.

Mike Umaga remembers his brother, born May 27, 1973, and the youngest of the family, as a quiet but competitive kid who did things kids did and liked jelly-and-peanut-butter sandwiches and KFC. Despite the age difference, the two were close, never falling out and spending as much time chucking the ball around at William Jones Park as school and friends allowed.

Mrs Umaga and her husband worked hard to get by: money was scarce, but they looked on the bright side: having no TV, says Mike, saved him from failing School Certificate. That the Umagas are held out as role models bemuses Mike. "We weren't perfect. We were a normal family."

That Tauese Umaga was the driving force behind her children is well-known. She knew Mike wasn't going to be the one to stay around and look after the family and told him to "go and experience the big wide world out there".

Umaga was the home-body. It's little surprise he wants to spend more time with the family: he has three children, Cade, Gabrielle and Lily-Kate, with wife Rochelle.

Lanky


She's stood by Umaga through good and bad since he met her through league mates as a lanky 19-year old, says Mike.

"He was pretty much head-over-heels, and they've been together ever since. She calmed him down. She's been good for him. It must've been hard with all the travelling Tana's done over the years."

Friends from Umaga's time at Parkway College remember a popular, skinny teenager who ate a lot, slept a lot, liked his music - old school hip-hop - and lacked the passion he put into his sport when it came to study. He wasn't at school a lot: he won the school sports award but didn't show up for the special assembly to receive it. No worries - when he did slope into class with that hunched, tired-looking walk he still has today, his grin found its way around detention-waving teachers.

He was loved by everybody, won the annual award for Best Legs and all the girls had a crush on him.

As a child, mischief wasn't really his thing, says Mike. "He waited until he was public property to do that."

Did he what. The most infamous occasion was when TV3 got hold of footage of a well-oiled Umaga slithering through Christchurch's streets after a night out. Less is known of his 1994 charge for assaulting a woman outside a Dunedin pub - a head-butt, media reports claimed.

One who knows well both Umaga, and the act of falling from grace, is Hewitt. He got to know Umaga when union had just turned professional. They were different times, says Hewitt.

"There was no blueprint. We were learning as we went where the line was. Sometimes that line was clouded. I had to step over it to know where it was. Maybe it was the same for Tana. You get to a certain stage in your career and life when you want to do it differently."

Despite Hewitt's own bad-boy-turned-good experiences, the pair have never talked about it:Hewitt had left the game before Umaga hit the bottle and the bad times.

But Hewitt remembers the high esteem Umaga held his brother in: many credit Mike, a talented rugby player and now rugby coach for English team Coventry, with pulling Umaga back from the brink.

Mike puts it down to strong Christian values his parents instilled in them: loyalty, honesty to others and yourself, respect and trust.

But he remembers phone calls from Umaga, saying 'Hey, I've been in a bit of trouble, bro'. "I'd tell him he'd have to front up and ride it out. Sometimes you have to push boundaries to come back again. The game tests personal patience and character. He beat himself up about it."

But Umaga might never have become an All Black, let alone captain. Wainuiomata is league country. At school it was Umaga's chosen sport. He made the Junior Kiwis in 1992. His coach Frank Endacott remembers during final training before a must-win test against Australia at Carlaw Park, Umaga was "walking around as though he had the world on his shoulders".

"He had his head down and he wasn't contributing. I gave him a bloody good rark up. He didn't respond to me in any negative way. There was something that just wasn't right."

Bad flu


Turned out Umaga had a bad flu but kept it quiet, he wanted to play so badly. "I'm pleased he didn't tell me because he went out there and played a blinder," says Endacott.

Umaga developed a strong bond with Ruben Wiki. Mike Umaga says they seemed to share a sixth sense, knowing exactly where the other would be on the field.

Wiki, now Kiwis captain, feels privileged to have played with him. He remembers a humble man who put family first.

"He was one of those gifted players who was going to succeed whether it was rugby league or rugby. He's pretty special."

At 19, Umaga chose rugby, announcing to Mike he was going to play with his mates for Wainuiomata. Mike persuaded him otherwise.

"I told him, 'if you're going to be serious about your rugby, you should go to Petone [then Wellington's best team]. You can hang out with your mates any time. Aim higher'."

Umaga did. He made the Wellington Colts, then the New Zealand Colts, then the Hurricanes in 1996. And in 1997, he became an All Black.

Since then Mike watched his little brother grow up on the television screen and the pages of newspapers. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He, and the family, are immensely proud.

Umaga's first year was his greatest, says Mike. His second, his worst. He failed to make the team.

"It was pretty hard on him. But he'd grown up so much in that 1997 year that he knew what he had to do to get back in the team," says Mike.

All Black great Michael Jones saw Umaga's ability to become captain from his debut in 1997, the year before Jones retired. He remembers Umaga standing next to him during the anthems, like Jones stood next to Joe Stanley when he debuted as a young, shy Kiwi-Samoan boy.

Two things stood out for Jones. One was his own ruptured kneecap, effectively ending his career. The other was a letter from Umaga saying how sorry he was that Jones had injured himself.

"That was huge for me ... he had the right values and had his head screwed on the right way. Writing a letter like that showed me that he has always had the heart for people and the head for doing the right thing. It's a lost characteristic but it comes naturally to him."

Honesty, says Mike, was another value his parents held dear. Umaga was always upfront with his family: he told them early on of his plans to leave test rugby to spend time with his family.

Umaga said the best thing about being in the UK was that he knew he'd be home in a few weeks - and the mantle of captaincy has changed Umaga, says Mike. He's more guarded, less instinctive, more stressed.

"[Sean] Fitzpatrick said being captain of the All Blacks often holds more pressure than being Prime Minister. But he's been brought up well, he's held on to those values, and I think he's come out pretty well."

And so Umaga's new life begins. Umaga once told Hewitt he wanted to go to university, perhaps get a child psychology degree. Whatever he does, says Hewitt, "It's going to be huge for New Zealand. Tana's definitely a hero. And we need heroes."

- HERALD ON SUNDAY