Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Blues coach TANA UMAGA talks about his team’s turnaround, Handré Pollard’s potential switch to centre and previews the Stormers showdown at Newlands on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Do you regard your victory over the Lions as a turning point?
Tana Umaga: It has to rate right up there. We were pretty happy with our performance against the Lions at Ellis Park and the positive is that we believe we can get better. Before the game, we didn’t talk about altitude but rather about attitude. (The Blues endured a tough week leading up to the Lions clash - they were stuck at the airport for nine hours on the Sunday and then their flight was cancelled. They didn’t depart until the following day and had a much longer stopover in Sydney than planned. The upshot is they that didn’t arrive in South Africa until Tuesday and had to rejig their week). We spoke about finishing well and the players knew that they had to dig deep no matter what. You can’t take it for granted that playing at home at altitude will mean visiting teams will falter in that last 20 minutes. (The Lions have now lost on the last two occasions a New Zealand team has visited and some will argue that the latter are better conditioned). The players would have derived plenty of confidence from the Lions match and I believe we can build off that. However, one game doesn’t make a season and the boys have to continue to put in the hard work. They cannot just rely on a positive performance and think that everything is cured. The challenge for the playing group is to repeat that winning performance week-in and week-out. That is the consistency that we are always looking for from them. All I ask of our players is to perform to the best of their abilities and deliver on the things we see from them in training every day. The supporters and those people watching the game only get to see them one day a week, but as a management group we see them day-in and day-out. We have confidence in their abilities and they just need to believe in themselves.
Sport24 asked: To date, what are the biggest lessons you have learnt as a coach?
Tana Umaga: I have learnt how to manage people and not just in terms of the rugby team. It’s around the club and the administration as well. The biggest things I’ve learnt is how to deal with those aspects and ensure that everyone is connected and integrated within one club, even though there are different facets to it. Getting my message across to different people is something I have really enjoyed and have developed within myself. When I first made the transition from playing to coaching it was a big learning curve for me. At times, I would think to myself: Should I get on the field and physically get my point across? I have learnt that that is the easy way out. I now coach using diagrams and by explaining on the white board. I was an emotional player, but as a coach it doesn’t help to be overly emotional. Through my coaching, I have become a more rounded person and have learnt to put myself across better. I believe the reason we do what we do as coaches is to allow players to express themselves. As a professional coach, my aim is to grow them both as people and players. The players have aspirations and I want to see them reach their potential. Obviously Akira Ioane (who has been in hot form) hasn’t yet put his feet on the ground in an All Black (15-man) jersey, but I think he definitely has the attributes to represent the national side. He is playing very well for us and I know his name is in the All Black selection mix. He’s a pretty special individual in terms of what he can do, so I reckon it’s definitely within his realm to reach the highest level. He is consistent and that is what the All Blacks are after. The All Black environment is a great one to be a part of. The All Blacks are always looking to improve themselves, they work tirelessly in terms of the fundamentals of the game and there is legacy involved in what they do. As an All Black, you’re proud of what has gone before you and players and management work really hard to uphold that tradition.
Sport24 asked: How would you appraise the current state of South African rugby?
Tana Umaga: It’s obviously been tough times for Springbok rugby, but there is an air of optimism around Rassie Erasmus’s appointment as Springbok coach. It’s a tough position he’s in - he’s at the head of an international team where everyone wants results. However, Rassie attained some positive results in European rugby with Munster and it will be interesting to watch as his tenure takes shape. When it comes to Springbok and South African rugby there is plenty of history and expectation that goes with it. I know a South African side hasn’t won Super Rugby since the Bulls lifted the trophy in 2010, but it’s a tough competition. It’s difficult to sustain a high level of rugby all the time. However, the Lions have done well and have reached the final for the last two seasons. I can’t talk for South African rugby, but there is definitely a lot of talent out there. However, South African rugby is experiencing a similar thing to what is happening in New Zealand in terms of the fight to retain talent. More and more young players are packing their bags for overseas-based clubs, which is just the way it is now and, to borrow a business term, it comes down to supply and demand.
Sport24 asked: Would it make sense to permanently switch Handre Pollard to centre?
Tana Umaga: I can see the merits behind John Mitchell’s decision to shift Pollard to inside centre. I think he has the skills to play as a second receiver, and it would offer the Springboks two kicking options. I suppose anything can be done if the player is willing. If Handre is comfortable with the move then good on him because I definitely believe he boasts the ability. In the modern game, you require midfielders that can carry, distribute and provide a kicking option. It’s pretty tough to come up against centres that are triple threats. South African rugby has always been strong in the midfield department. At the moment, Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende are probably the two South African centres that come to mind. However, owing to his ability to distribute, carry and kick, Pollard is an interesting option. As a player you have to want to make the shift yourself (Umaga played 18 Test matches as a winger for the All Blacks before making a highly successful transition to centre in 2000).
Sport24 asked: What are your expectations against the Stormers in the Mother City?
Tana Umaga: We know that the Stormers will be hurting after their Australasian road trip (the Cape-based side lost all three of their tour matches). They are now back at home and we are aware that they will be determined to do very well in front of their families, friends and support base. I’m expecting a well-coached and well-prepared Stormers team on Saturday. We will take nothing for granted and look to apply the learnings from last weekend. We cannot rest on our laurels because this week brings a different opponent and a fresh challenge. I’m sure they will have confidence in themselves that they can beat us on their home ground (the Stormers defeated the Blues 30-22 in Cape Town last season) and we have to make sure that we look after everything that we can control.
Previous Q&A chats:Rohan Janse van Rensburg