A major reason why we did not win the World Cup in 2003 was the injury to All Black captain and iconic leader, Tana Umaga. Tana was hurt in a collision with teammate Carlos Spencer and didn't recover in time. It was not surprising that his on field dynamism, commitment and leadership were sorely missed when it came to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, it was one year too far. In 2007, if he’d even only been playing on only one leg, I’m convinced we would have taken care of business and won the World Cup.
As it was, Tana got out at the top, having been an incredible ambassador for All Black values and New Zealand. He was instrumental in winning the hosting rights for the 2011 World Cup, which may prove to be his greatest legacy. He’s now coaching Toulon after having single-handedly taken them from Division II to France’s top 14. I went along to watch a pre-season friendly against Saracens which ended up in a 60 point jamboree of running rugby which would have left Tana fuming. No structure, no discipline, no commitment, no leadership. I wouldn’t have wanted to be those boys the next morning!!
The following day, Tana and wife, plus three adorable daughters, Gabrielle (8), Lily-Kate (4) and Anise (2) came around to our St. Tropez house. They joined Ben Castle and his new wife, Lauren, and Tusi and Carla Pisi. Ben and Tusi are ex-New Zealand players with the Chiefs in Auckland and were terrific company. Ben, as the newbie, took charge of the Mini Moke as we four boys zoomed into St. Tropez, leaving the girls (young and younger) to an afternoon/evening’s fun and games by the pool.
Tana was stopped quite a few times in St. Tropez for photos and autographs, demonstrating how much the All Blacks are revered throughout France. And, let’s face it, Tana is somewhat recognizable. He signed autographs and posed for photos; helping to spread New Zealand’s charisma in a very positive, upbeat way. It will be fascinating to see whether these passionate Kiwis can drive Toulon into a top six place in what is probably the toughest club competition in the world.
One book that will be required reading for Tana is John Daniell's Inside French Rugby: Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary. It’s the best inside look of how the French really view club rugby, including playing away from home and playing against European opposition. It is also a book I recommend if you want to understand the innermost workings of Kiwis, Frenchmen and rugby players. JD – who played with Tana in Wellington - now writes for L’Equipe. That boy sure done good.