2018 looms as a pivotal year for a host of great Kiwi athletes, teams and sporting figures. Over coming weeks, Newsroom details the challenges that lie ahead for this nation’s best and fairest. Next up, Blues coach Tana Umaga.
Tana Umaga isn’t exactly getting carried away with the pre-season promise that appears to be seeping out of the Blues.
Eleven weeks into what will be a 13-week pre-season campaign, the Blues have thumped the Chiefs and claimed the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens title, unveiling a player who is shaping as quite literally the next big thing in New Zealand rugby in the process.
But it’s far too early for cartwheels – or even unguarded optimism. Entering his third – likely make or break – season as head coach, Umaga has witnessed enough false dawns in his time not to be suckered.
“We understand that when the season starts it is a different kettle of fish,” he says.
“We don’t take anything for granted in this competition. We have to make sure we are ready for it.”
This year, that means ringing a few changes; discarding what were once promising philosophies and methodologies that never quite panned out, and trying something else instead.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and hoping for different result,” he says. “As I’ve explained to the players, we have got to make sure we are always learning from what has gone on in the past. Sometimes you think you are doing things well but you are not getting the reward from it. So you’ve got to ask yourself ‘is that best for us or is it time to move past that’?”
After two moderately promising but ultimately unfulfilled campaigns as head coach, the time is most definitely now.
“It is having the confidence to do that, being willing to take that risk. The changes we have made are not huge, and the shifts we have to make are not huge. We just have to keep following it through. It is a constant.”
The Blues haven’t exactly been bad under Umaga. In 2017 they posted a respectable 7-1-7 record. Their 37 competition points would have been good enough to top the Australian conference and claim second spot in South Africa 1. But in the cut throat New Zealand conference they were way off the pace, finishing dead last, 14 points adrift of a 4th placed Highlanders side that lost just four games.
"We haven’t been in the playoffs for a while so we want to get that at least. We want to be playing in August rather than finishing up in July."
- Tana Umaga
For the New Zealand teams, the bar for success is set incredibly high.
“It is what it is,” shrugs Umaga. “It is great for our country. You want to compete with the best and at the moment that is New Zealand. It is like anything, you have to have the results to be able to claim to be the best in this country and we haven’t done that the last couple of years.”
The results in derby matches have been particularly poor, ultimately consigning the Blues to failure.
“You want to win those ones as they are crucial,” says Umaga, who in the same breath points to the now rationalised four-team Australian and South African presence in the 16-team competition as being far more of a threat.
“Looking across the landscape of the super rugby competition, with what has happened in Australia, their talent is not spread as much now. That builds quality in their environments. There will be some teams to look out for there, same with the South Africans.”
So an already tough ask just got tougher. If Umaga has in fact shaped the Blues into a contender, the transformation will have been remarkable. The club’s last competitive outing was 48-21 humiliation at the hands of the Japanese Sunwolves – a team that had lost its previous two matches 94-7 and 52-15.
That result stretched the credibility of Umaga’s claim that the Blues were close to breaking out of the doldrums last season. However the coach could justifiably point out that the Blues’ most recent derby match was a draw with the Chiefs, while their matches against the Highlanders and Hurricanes were settled by margins of less than six points.
That is indeed close – but close doesn’t get a team in into the playoffs, the benchmark Umaga has set for a successful campaign in 2018.
“Oh look… for us, we haven’t been in the playoffs for a while so we want to get that at least. We want to be playing in August rather than finishing up in July. That is our goal. But that is everyone’s goal. It is how we work at it, every week, every day that we are together.”
So far, at least, the signs are encouraging. The Blues squad that pitched up to the Brisbane Tens were a happy, confident mob. Their victory over the Hurricanes in a tight, tense final came thanks to two tries in the final three minutes, including the match winner to George Moala after the final hooter.
It may not have been Super Rugby, but the Blues found a way to win when defeat seemed more likely, and their celebrations showed the result meant plenty to them.
Most eye-catchingly, they unveiled a new star in Caleb Clarke, a hulking 18-year-midfielder with impeccable genes (he’s the son of All Black Eroni) and superstar written all over him.
“He is just a kid,” counsels Umaga. “We have got to be mindful of that. Physically he doesn’t shirk to anyone else within our environment or any environment. He is a great kid who takes everything in, which is what you want as a coach. He wants to learn, wants to get better every day. And he’s so helpful.
“He’s a very humble, helpful child who is always wanting to do something for someone else.
“My expectations for him are just to soak up our environment, soak up Super Rugby.”
The final step in the Blues’ preparation was Thursday night’s hit out against the Hurricanes, a contest in which the primary goal of both camps was to integrate All Blacks returning from a mandatory 12-week stand down.
For the Blues, the influence of Sonny Bill Williams and Jerome Kaino, in particular, will be crucial to their fortunes in 2018.
“At any club you ask a lot of those international players,” says Umaga. “But you’ve got to make sure that they are ready for it. They come back late to us and then we expect them to play and know everything that we have been doing for two months. They get two weeks. Sometimes you have to temper your thoughts and your hopes around what condition they are going to be in. There is a difference between training and playing.”
Indeed. Just as there is a difference between playing in pre-season matches where the result counts for nought and playing for keeps when the season kicks off on February 23 with a trip to Dunedin to face the Highlanders.
“We have been pre-season training for a long time now so you actually want to see [the players] do the things that we have been training.
“I am ready to get it on.”