All Black captain Tana Umaga led his team to a 3-0 whitewash of the Lions and victory in the Tri-nations. Now he’s out to claim the All Black’s first grand slam since 1978. Words by Marc Hinton
Tana, ever since Graham Henry made you captain you seem to have gone from strength to strength on the field. Would it be a fair assumption that captaincy grows on you?
I think so. It’s a responsibility, isn’t it? What really motivates me as a captain is I have to be seen to do what I’ve been saying. If I ask it of the players, I have to back it up with my actions. That’s something that drives me. I don’t want to let anyone down and I want to make sure that if I’m telling it to them, I’m doing it myself. It’s also something I have to work on constantly on and off the field with all the values we’re trying to live by in this team.
This All Black captaincy is a job like no other. It’s 24-7 at times. It’s high pressure, very public and it’s very, very demanding. Has it changed you as a person?
I don’t know if it has really. When I was given the captaincy of the Hurricanes, that was my first real responsibility and that took some getting used to. Even when I became one of the old hands in the All Blacks it started dawning on me what I had to do to become a leader. I don’t think I’ve changed as such, but I have learnt a lot in respect of what it takes to do the job and the expectation placed on the All Black captain. I thought I had a good handle on that before I took the job, because I’ve been around a lot of captains. But there’s actually more to it than I realised. I’m also more aware of the time I spend at home with my family. I think you have to split the two lives. Once you’re out of the environment, you go home and you’re just dad. That’s probably an easier job at this stage.
What’s the harder part of the job: the intense 80 minutes on the field, which probably comes fairly naturally to you now, or all the peripheral stuff that takes place the rest of the week off it?
Definitely all the off-the-field stuff. It’s all part and parcel, and I don’t think it’s hard, but it just grinds away at your days. On the field I don’t think it’s hard at all. The hardest thing would be getting through the tough times. We’ve got some really good leaders in the squad, but sometimes you have to make the tough decisions. I’ve been lucky, really; I haven’t had that many. I’ve probably only had to make one or two where I’ve had to go with what I think in a certain situation against what everyone else feels. I try and think about what’s best for everyone, and what you feel is right and go with it. I get so much support from our leadership group, it’s not just me making a lot of the decisions. That’s a good thing and, in the past, it’s been a downfall of a lot of captains.
Taine Randell is a good example of an All Black captain who hung out on his own quite a lot.
Exactly. If he’d been in this structure, he probably would have been in the job for a lot longer.
We’ve seen a lot of All Black captains go on to achieve big things when their playing careers have ended, men like Brian Lochore, Wilson Whineray, John Graham, Jock Hobbs and, more lately, David Kirk. Can you see yourself one day sitting round the boardroom table making the big decisions?
No, not at all. Not at all. I don’t have the brain for it, really. It would just confuse me, I think. The business I’d be involved with would probably go bankrupt. I know where I want to be. I want to be working with kids. That’s what I’m good at, helping kids decide paths. And I believe education is a big thing. I’m an ambassador for education. Once all this is done, I can really get my teeth into that and really get it going. Having kids of my own, that’s something I drive at home and, if I can, through my profile, I might as well drive it for other homes as well.
Someone said to me they thought that, after the prime minister, you might have the most demanding job in New Zealand. She only has an election every three years, whereas an All Black captain can go at any time. So, couldn’t we say yours is even tougher?
I don’t think it’s anywhere near what she must face. You watch what the prime minister has to do; she has to be here, there and everywhere through a day. I don’t think I could handle that. In this country, I think we support our captain pretty well and it’s the poor old coaches that tend to cop it if we’re not going so well. So the short answer is no.
Casting your mind back to the British & Irish Lions tour, history is clearly going to judge them a pretty poor side that were badly managed and coached. Does that detract anything from what was regardless an impressive All Black performance through that series?
I don’t think so. They’re a side that comes here every 12 years and we built ourselves up around that. It was also a major motivation for Justin Marshall finishing his career on that series. I don’t think it detracts from what we achieved. Even though they were perceived as poor, the quality of some of our play was very, very good.
Was the series all you hoped it would be?
It was 3-0 – that was the series I wanted. The hype was amazing. I’d never played Tests at home like that. That Test in Wellington still lives in my mind, the Lions supporters seeming to fill the whole stadium, just how close they were. It was the best atmosphere I’ve seen in this country. It’s something you have to liken to going to South Africa or to the UK, in those big stadiums. Even though we didn’t have that many people, the crowd created the same sort of atmosphere.
What went through your mind when it became clear during the week between Christchurch and Wellington that you were seen as the villain in the controversy about Brian O’Driscoll’s injury? It was an orchestrated campaign aimed squarely at you. What was that like?
You see it for what it was. Nothing fazed me. I got over it and moved on. But when it drags on till a Thursday, it starts to get to you, and it annoyed me a bit – actually, a lot. But I use these things. You try and use everything you can. I knew they were trying to destabilise me and I didn’t want to give them the pleasure of achieving that. In the end, I turned it round and used it as a positive to drive me through it.
You must have been thrilled with your team-mates’ response, both in Wellington and in Auckland [when you were sin-binned]? These guys seemed pretty keen to get in behind their skipper.
We didn’t need any team talks that week because they’d done them for us. The support I got personally was great. It makes you appreciate this group, and that’s the kind of group we’ve got. We’ve got a great team feeling here, the culture is going well. Our challenge now is to keep that building, keep growing. I guess the day we feel we’ve got it right is the day we’ll probably come unstuck.
Do you think one day you’ll be able to sit down and have a beer with Brian O’Driscoll and maybe put the whole damn thing completely behind you?
I’d like to think so. Then again, I’m only one half of the story. But I’m a firm believer that there’s really no need to hold grudges in rugby.
What did winning the Tri-Nations title at Eden Park mean to you guys, bearing in mind this is, after all, your sixth title in 10 years of the competition?
It was special. No doubt about that. There aren’t too many in this group left from those who lost it last year. But it’s payback for a lot of hard work done, not just by the players but the management as well. It meant a hell of a lot to us.
Talk us through what you perceive as the gains the All Blacks have made in the 2005 season.
Top for me is probably the development of players. Guys like Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Sione Lauaki, Tony Woodcock who hadn’t played a lot of Tests coming into this year. Ali Williams has stepped up this year immensely, Joe Rokocoko has come back. Rico Gear. Leon MacDonald has come back from Japan and has been covering two positions for us. That aspect alone has got to be good for us. Also that togetherness or unity we have. And probably our leadership. We’ve grown more leaders, and the guys are starting to talk a lot more. Even the ones who are usually quiet like Keven Mealamu. When Sitiveni Sivivatu was in the squad he was a good talker. You wouldn’t think it, but he surprised us. When he spoke, he spoke well. The pack’s been great too. You’re halfway to winning the game if your forwards get you going forward. They work hard for us.
With all due respect to a man of your vintage, you have to be smart about your rugby in terms of workload. What’s the challenge for you getting through the remainder of the year?
It’s all about just being wise with the time that I have. After the Tri-Nations you need a decent break to get the body back up to where it was. During the series it gets battered. You’ve got to get the freshness back. I work hard on that aspect because I have to, and also, I’ve become a lot wiser in this area. I know my body a bit better. I know I can’t go too hard now, and ease back. I make sure I do my recoveries and rehab. The ideal is to make sure I’m right by Thursday or Friday so that I’m fizzing by Saturday. I’m fortunate to have coaches and management who respect and understand that.
You seem to have a very positive relationship with Graham Henry. How important has the dynamic between captain and coach been in your success and that of the team?
It’s a credit to Ted, really. For a man of his stature, who’s been around the game so long and coached for so many years and been so successful, he gives not just me but Richie as well a lot of respect and listens to what we say. He could be the autocratic coach who says, ‘This is the way it is’, but he lets us be the voices of the team. So we’ve got to make sure we give him everything we can, and then he makes an informed decision. It’s good having a coach that’s willing to do that. We have three of them and their dynamic sets the tone for us. That’s another strength of ours, the coaching group. And it’s growing too. Now we’ve got [scrum coach] Mike Cron, Mick the Kick [Mick Byrne], and we’re finding great benefits. It’s all getting better now.
Your kids must be very proud of their old man. What’s it like for them with the All Black captain as their dad?
I think they’re quietly proud. My son is 11, and I think it’s tough for him sometimes. He’s a very independent person, and he likes to do his own thing. When his dad comes over to watch, it’s tough for him because everyone starts talking about his dad when we should be there to watch him. But they’re really proud. My five-year-old daughter loves it. She’s very proud of me. But she doesn’t love it so much when I have to leave home. She hates me going and is always telling me she doesn’t want me to leave. It breaks your heart, really. But she’s five and she tends to get over it. I talk to her on the phone most days. It’s not so bad. They travel away most weekends if we’re in New Zealand.You’re just dad when you get home. It doesn’t mean anything in the house. Even my wife says that when she hands me the tea towel.