So I leave the country for a few days, and you go and pinch my coach!
To be fair, it was always going to happen, wasn’t it, and Tana Umaga deserves the chance at new greatness more than anyone. And having earned us a championship win and a Ranfurly Shield, we Counties fans can hardly complain. Especially since we also got to enjoy the Blues losing all that while.
It was always going to be hard job for John Kirwan at the Blues – and I reckon the contrast between how Kirwan and Tana went about their coaching careers says everything about what to expect now.
After being thrust into place as coach at Toulon, Tana then undertook a very deliberate coaching apprenticeship to make himself ready to go to the big table again. He wanted to start small, learn and try out his ideas first, he told interviewers, to be certain they had what it took. He wasn’t afraid to take on an unfashionable provincial team to do that, and every follower of that team thanks him for it.
“Sir John” might have been above all that. He never did a real apprenticeship. He never testes out his ideas to see them succeed. Instead, he coached two losing international sides, with players harbouring few expectations of great success, before being elevated to coach a side with an international presence and undeserved expectations for greatness. He was never going to fulfil them.
Tana might, because for him it’s all about the doing than the gongs. And he seems to be both a damned fine communicator, and an unleasher of great talent. My favourite Tana coaching moment was at the Championship final against Otago a few years back. Running through their warm-ups before the game, the two teams couldn’t have been more different. Otago ran up and down the field passing the ball through the line, pass, pass, pass, always one out passing, coach barking at them the while. They looked fed up.
Meanwhile, the Counties players were fizzing. Same warm-up, completely different attitude. Skip passes, pass-behinds, loop running, dummy loops, pivots switches, French switches … they were all there. Effortlessly. These weren’t drills, mind; this was natural ebullience from players enthusiastic about their ability and their craft. And where was the coach? Tana stood impassive at one end of the field saying nothing. Just watching. Whatever message the players needed, they’d already had. What he had left to communicate was the quiet confidence that it was now up to them. That they would do the job. And they did.
I reckon Tana will do the job. I reckon he’ll do a great job.
It’s a damn shame to lose him Pukekohe after this season. (But since my office is just down from Eden Park, I might nip along occasionally next year to see how he pulls up. Just quietly.)