Wednesday 27 April 2005
Umaga out to tame Lions
New Zealand captain Tana Umaga cannot wait to test himself against British & Irish Lions counterpart Brian O'Driscoll - and firmly believes the All Blacks have what it takes to triumph.
The Wellington Hurricanes skipper may be entering the final phase of his career - his contract runs until the 2007 World Cup - and find himself surrounded by a glut of younger three-quarters with big reputations, but he is still an invaluable asset to All Blacks coach Graham Henry.
New Zealand’s player for the year for 2000 spent 18 Tests on the wing before making a successful switch to centre, where he has spent most of his Test career, and he remains a huge threat, using his speed and power to unlock opposition defences.
This summer he will come face to face with O’Driscoll in what promises to be a fascinating duel between two of the world’s best centres, and Umaga admits he is relishing the prospect of locking horns with the Lions skipper.
"The Lions tour will be the biggest thing to hit New Zealand since Lord of the Rings," he said.
"As players, it’s enough for us to be driven by the rarity of playing the Lions. But it’s not just the players who are so excited - it’s the talk of the country.
"The Lions have potentially the most fearsome line-up I’ve ever come up against. They’re awesome."
"It’ll be brilliant to line up against the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. But I’m backing us all the way to beat them when they come over.”
With his dreadlocks and powerful physique, Umaga is one of the most recognisable figures in world rugby as he leads the All Blacks this summer.
Umaga was named New Zealand skipper last May by former Lions coach Henry.
The 31-year-old centre is a popular choice, a hard and uncompromising player - he is reknowned as one of the biggest hitters in the game - yet remains the perfect sportsman.
Last December he received the International Fair Play Award for going to the aid of Wales skipper Colin Charvis, who had been tackled by All Blacks team-mate Jerry Collins during a Test match in 2003.
Charvis was left injured and while play continued Umaga went to help him.
Umaga was the first Kiwi to win the Pierre de Coubertin Trophy for Fair Play, with previous winners including Arthur Ashe, Sir Bobby Charlton and Martina Navratilova.
“Tana has always been a very positive role model for New Zealand rugby. He’s highly respected by everyone, is known in the game as a world-class player and has a huge amount of experience,” said Henry.
The need to select an All Blacks skipper who was guaranteed his place in the Test line-up narrowed Henry’s options somewhat, especially given that much of the squad was inexperienced or not an obvious candidate for leadership duty.
Richie McCaw was a possibility but despite his enormous potential - he is arguably the world’s finest openside - he was not ready for the job, with Henry instead opting to groom him for the post in the future.
Umaga was the only realistic choice, taking over for last summer’s Tri-Nations, the Autumn tour to Europe and the forthcoming Lions series.