“I sense the calling’s pull”: Tana Umaga reflects on his rugby journey, legacy, and the Pasifika challenge…

Tana Umaga experienced a touch of anxiety. It was about 30 minutes after New Zealand’s comfortable victory over Argentina in the Rugby World Cup semifinal, and he received an invitation to join the All Blacks in their changing room.

While he relished the 44-6 win, he was content being one among thousands in the Stade de France crowd, simply a face in the stands. He didn’t want to be perceived as Umaga, the former All Blacks captain.

Yet, when the invitation to the changing room arrived, he accepted the honor. However, once he was deep within the Stade de France, he tried to keep a low profile. “I just stayed by the door,” Umaga recalls. Sam Cane and Scott Barrett spotted him and came over to greet him. Some of his former Blues players also approached to welcome their former coach, but he felt somewhat awkward.

“I’m a bit peculiar,” Umaga remarks. “I don’t often get to visit such places. I feel like I’m entering a space I probably shouldn’t be in. You know, there’s a bit of that ‘imposter syndrome.’ The last thing I wanted was to be the guy reminiscing about ‘back in my day,’ you know?”

Tana Umaga wears many hats. There’s the one from his playing days, as a successful center who earned 74 caps, captained his team 21 times, and participated in two World Cups. Then, there are the roles he’s taken on in his post-rugby career: coach, business partner alongside his wife Rochelle in their company Viktual+, and a general steward for the sport he holds so dearly.

During this World Cup, he served as an assistant coach for Samoa. After Samoa’s elimination, he remained in France to witness the All Blacks in action and savor the country where he once played. However, it was also a time for him to reflect on his upcoming venture: becoming the head coach of Moana Pasifika. He could have chosen a quieter life, but that’s not Umaga’s style.

As Umaga leaves the brasserie in Porte de Versailles after our interview, the restaurant staff inquire if he is the “famous All Black.” He still sports his trademark dreadlocks, and his hands, which expertly manipulated opposition defenses during his professional career, dwarf those of a typical handshake. However, that phase of his life has been consigned to a different chapter.

His love for the sport remains as fervent as ever, but his perspective has evolved. When he retired from playing in 2011, he had already begun his coaching career by taking the helm at Toulon for the 2008-09 season. He also served as an assistant coach at Counties Manukau before becoming head coach of Counties from 2012-2015. In 2016, he took charge of the Super Rugby franchise, the Blues.

“Looking back now, I wasn’t the best at building relationships, especially with the referees,” he admits. He remained the head coach through 2018 and then transitioned to the role of defense coach to hone his skills. In August 2021, he decided to step away from the game.

“When I resigned, I had this grand plan about traveling across the country and starting a business, you know, getting out there.

Two days later, we went into lockdown. So, the plan of traveling kind of went out the window.” During that year, he worked with his wife on their business Viktual+—a wellness supplement using Maori and Pasifika ingredients—and sought as much business expertise as possible.

He also launched his podcast, where he engaged with other former professionals like Rob Kearney, Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter, and Jonny Wilkinson on life after rugby.

However, the allure of coaching proved too strong. There was unfinished business. In August 2022, he returned to the Blues in a “cultural advisor and player mentor role” and began working with Samoa as they prepared for the 2023 World Cup.

He has experienced both sides of the World Cup spectrum: the highly professional and meticulously planned environment of the All Blacks, as well as the challenges faced by so-called “tier two” nations with uncertain fixture schedules. These teams operate on goodwill but lack experience, resources, and funding.

As we converse, you can sense the lingering disappointment from Samoa’s World Cup campaign. They peaked towards the end of the pool stages, narrowly losing to England by a single point in their final match but failing to advance.

After that defeat, coach Seilala Mapusua delivered an emotional press conference, expressing his pride in the team but also the need to enhance their prospects. He pointed out what he perceived as “unconscious bias” from referees against “tier two” nations.

“We know what unconscious bias feels like,” Umaga notes. “Some say, ‘Just tough it out,’ but they’ve never experienced it themselves. Unless you’ve walked in their shoes and lived their experiences, you probably don’t have a valid opinion. By calling it out repeatedly and refusing to accept it, we can create a shift in mentality. There needs to be a change in mindset. If we keep sweeping it under the rug, nothing will change.”

Between 2019 and 2023, Samoa had just two matches against tier one countries. For some players, facing these teams at the World Cup was a completely new and daunting experience.

“We excel at rising to the occasion for one-off games, but you can see that teams like Argentina and Fiji thrive as these matches become more routine. With experience, these games become just another challenge, rather than an enormous peak we have to reach. Repetition and familiarity are key to achieving this.”

Amid discussions of the revised rugby calendar from 2026 onward, Umaga sees some benefits, such as guaranteed fixtures. However, he emphasizes the importance of Samoa regularly facing top-tier teams.

“Everyone desires more matches,” Umaga states. “Statistics show that there are very few matches between tier one and tier two teams, largely due to financial considerations. We understand that everyone needs to compete to survive. But we also need to develop these countries and level the playing field. Everyone loves an underdog story.

“Everyone is trying to protect their interests. However, I believe those governing the game should take a broader perspective. They seem to be focused on increasing their own number of Tests.”

Umaga acknowledges that Samoa possesses world-class players. Still, he points out that those playing in the Top 14 or Gallagher Premiership may not necessarily hold leadership roles at their clubs. Consequently, the transition to leading their national team can be challenging.

“We need to nurture that leadership base. Players like Fritz Lee, who serves as a leader at Clermont and knows how to lead in finals, are critical. This might be a focus in my next role—developing these leaders.”

This is where Moana Pasifika comes into the picture. Umaga signed a three-year contract with the Super Rugby Pacific franchise in July 2023, charged with nurturing the next generation of Pacific Islands internationals.

“As I embark on this journey, I’m drawing upon the lessons and experiences I’ve gained since my head coaching days. I bring different facets of my life to the table—the Pacific Islands perspective, knowledge of the New Zealand and Blues systems,

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