Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Tana Umaga and contemporary NZ society

This will doubtlessly be lost on Brendan Gallagher, Eddie Butler, Stephen Jones et al, nevertheless the life and career of retired All Black captain Tana Umaga (his autobiography is out now!) offers instructive insight into contemporary New Zealand society and a particularly sharp middle-finger to the vile "raping the islands" narrative currently being retreaded by rugby columnists in the United Kingdom.

Umaga bridged divide between old and new New Zealand

by Paul Thomas
New Zealand Herald
September 30, 2007


We're all products of our upbringings, Umaga more than most. The Wellington suburb of Wainuiomata in which he grew up and where his family still lives is unusual in two respects. It's self-contained - once over the crest of the hill, the capital is out of sight and, one senses, largely out of mind.

Secondly, it was the final destination for two waves of immigrants who came south in search of a better life for their children: Ngati Porou and Pacific Islanders, particularly Samoans.

The combination of migration and geography created a tightly-knit community in which organised religion was the dominant social and cultural force and Maori and Pacific Islanders became closely integrated. When they weren't praising the Lord, they played football.

Sports broadcaster and community leader Ken Laban, a lifelong Wainuiomata resident, believes the conveyor belt of talent begins with a long-established whanau touch football competition organised by the Wainuiomata Marae in which all teams have to include two of the following: an under-12, an over-40, and a woman.

The effect was, and still is, that three generations of a family could play together and youngsters could play with and against grown-ups, some of whom are prominent athletes.

If you're good enough, you're old enough - providing you're tough enough. Laban, who coached Umaga in the Wainuiomata Premiers that won rugby league's Lion Red Cup in 1992, says: "The environment is tough and as a result the kids who come out of it are tough. [Tana] was being exposed to that environment and level of competition at 16 when a lot of his peer group were behind the bike-sheds sucking lollipops or whatever."

As a dreadlocked Polynesian who played with flair and freedom, Umaga's accession to the All Black captaincy could be seen as symbolising the superseding of the old New Zealand - rural, taciturn, self-effacing, Pakeha - by the new - urban, self-expressive, flamboyant, multicultural.

In fact, Umaga's success in the role and his ability to galvanise the public behind the All Blacks lay in his ability to bridge this divide.

Appearances aside, Umaga possessed the qualities and attributes that New Zealanders have associated with the All Blacks for 100 years - stoicism, resilience, ruthlessness in pursuit of victory, graciousness when victory has been achieved - and which were personified by old New Zealand's rugby icon, Colin Meads.


While history will be the judge of Umaga's place in the game, it's already evident that he's had a profound influence on the current generation of Wellington and All Black players, especially the Polynesians. But perhaps the greatest legacy of this proud first-generation Kiwi, who handled his country's most demanding sporting assignment with grace and dignity, is to serve as a rebuke to those who wilfully ignore the multicultural reality of contemporary New Zealand.



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