Sunday, March 3, 2024

Umaga breathes more easily

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After such a dismal start, Blues coach Tana Umaga’s men aren’t going to make the play-offs. Photo YouTube

Under seige Super Rugby coach Tana Umaga would have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Blues held on to beat the Waratahs 24-21 in Sydney last weekend.

It was only their third victory in 10 games and still leaves them a lowly 13th on the 15-team championship table. But it was a gritty, deserved win, highlighted by them successfully defending 20 phases at the death.

After such a dismal start, Umaga’s men aren’t going to make the play-offs whereas their rejuvenated league counterparts, the Warriors, are sitting pretty in second place on the NRL ladder.

Maybe the Blues should take a leaf out of the Warriors book, buy smarter and get some genuine depth in their squad.

Tohu Harris, Blake Green and Adam Blair have infused the Warriors with the smarts they had lacked to back the brilliance of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitu’a and the erratic Shaun Johnson.

With the exception of the thrashing they copped from the Melbourne Storm, their defence has been outstanding.

In contrast, too many home-grown Auckland union players have excelled for other franchises, though few on Umaga’s watch, after failing to be snapped up by the Blues.

However one is former national sevens star Ben Lam who is making a strong bid for All Black honours after scoring a dozen tries in nine rounds for the Hurricanes.

I am not convinced calls for Umaga’s sacking are justified despite his poor record over the past few years in the wake of those suffered by Pat Lam and Sir John Kirwan.

While great players don’t necessarily make good coaches, Umaga’s leadership qualities were such than Sir Graham Henry made him an All Black captain. He’s also a very personable, honest man.

It hasn’t helped that the Blues current season, along with that of the Chiefs, has been plagued with injuries. However that is not an excuse for so many fumbles when tries have been squandered by players who fail to execute a simple pass and catch.

Yet they do have individual talent, like the Ioane brothers Rieko and Akira. But poor options and an alarming lack of cohesiveness have let them down badly.

The return of Jerome Kaino was a factor in their triumph against the Waratahs but not even the hoped for return from injury of Sonny Bill Williams and Melani Nanai is likely to save them against the Hurricanes on Friday night.

Not that the Hurricanes were perfect in their hard-fought win against the Lions last up when saviour Lam scored three of their four tries against the talented Lions.

Yet they have magicians like the Barrett brothers who mesmerise and bemuse with their magic. Furthermore they have the cohesive backline the Blues lack.

Developing that and instilling confidence is the greatest challenge facing Umaga as he seeks to save a sinking ship.

Meanwhile it says much for the Warriors depth that with Karl Lawton and Mason Lino likely to replace injured Isaac Luke (dislocated shoulder) and Shaun Johnson (ankle), the Warriors should perform well at home against the Roosters.

Two tries by lively replacement hooker Lawton against the Wests Tigers within four minutes was a superb way to trumpet his debut.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author.

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