'I feel the pull of this calling': Tana Umaga on his rugby life, legacy and Pasifika challenge

Who holds the upper hand in the Rugby World Cup final? (2:59)

The ESPN Scrum Reset team look ahead to the Rugby World Cup final, debating what kind of game will play out and which players hold the key. (2:59)

PARIS, France -- Tana Umaga was nervous. It was half an hour after New Zealand had defeated Argentina comfortably in the Rugby World Cup semifinal, and Umaga had received an invite to go to the All Blacks' changing room.

He enjoyed the 44-6 victory, one of the thousands in the stands of the Stade de France having witnessed an All Blacks masterclass. But he was happy just being that: A face in the crowd, rather than Umaga the ex-All Blacks captain.

When the invite came to join the team in the changing room after the match, he accepted the honour. But when he was down in the depths of the Stade de France, he did his best to stay as inconspicuous as possible. "I just stayed by the door," Umaga says. Sam Cane and Scott Barrett spotted him and came over to say hello. Some of his old Blues players also walked over to greet their former coach, but he felt awkward.

"I'm a bit funny," Umaga says. "I don't get to go down there often. I feel I'm stepping into an area that I probably shouldn't be in. You know, there's a little bit of that imposter syndrome. The last thing I ever wanted to be was the 'in my day' guy, you know?"

Umaga wears many hats. There's the one from his rugby playing career, the successful centre who won 74 caps, captained his team 21 times and played in two World Cups. Then there's the others he wears in his post-rugby career: The coach, the business partner with his wife Rochelle in their company Viktual+ but there's also one of general custodian for the sport he loves so much.

In this World Cup he was assistant coach with Samoa but once they were knocked out, he stayed in France to watch the All Blacks and enjoy the country where he played earlier in his career. But it was also a moment to take stock ahead of his next project: Head coach of Moana Pasifika. He could have chosen a quiet life, but it's not Umaga's way.

When Umaga leaves the brasserie in Porte de Versailles after our interview, the waiting staff ask if he is the "famous All Black". The trademark dreadlocks are there, the vast hands which pressed and pulled opposition defences through his professional career gulf yours in a handshake, but that whole time of his life is compartmentalised in a different chapter.

He loves the sport as much as he ever did, but the lens through which he sees it has changed. When he finished playing in 2011, he had already started his coaching career having taken charge of Toulon for the 2008-09 season, and then acted as assistant at Counties Manukau. He then took the top job at Counties from 2012-15 before taking charge of Super Rugby franchise the Blues in 2016. "Looking back now, I wasn't the best at relationship making perhaps, especially with the referees," he says. He was head coach through to 2018, and then took a sideways step to defence coach to finetune his craft. In August 2021 he decided to step away from the game.

"When I resigned, I had this big plan about how we were gonna go across the country and start this business and, you know, get out there. Two days later we went into lockdown. So the plan of traveling kind of went out the window." He spent the year working with his wife on their business Viktual+ -- a wellbeing supplement drawing on Maori and Pasifika ingredients -- and sought as much business expertise as possible. He also launched his own podcast, picking the brains of other fellow ex-pros like Rob Kearney, Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson on life after rugby.

But the pull of coaching proved to be too much. There was unfinished business. In August. 2022 he re-joined the Blues in a "cultural advisor and player mentor role," and started working with Samoa as they built to the 2023 World Cup.

He's seen both sides of the World Cup -- the ultra-professional, slick machine of the All Blacks where it's all meticulously planned, but also the other side -- the so-called "tier two" nation existence where there's an uncertain fixture schedule. There's a host of good will driving the team, but also a lack of experience, alongside resources and funding.

As we talk, you can see the pain is still there from Samoa's World Cup. It was one where they peaked towards the end of the pool stages, losing by just a point to England in their final match, but failed to progress. Afterward that England defeat, coach Seilala Mapusua gave an emotional press conference, talking of the pride he had for his team but also the need to improve their stock heading forward. He highlighted what he felt was "unconscious bias" from referees against so-called "tier two" nations.

"We know what unconscious bias feels like," Umaga says. "Others come in and say, well, you've just gotta suck it up. But they've never actually felt that before. Unless you've kind of been through it yourself and lived, walked, the shoes that these guys have been through, then you probably don't have a leg to stand on. You are actually part of the issue, you know? Unless that's acknowledged, nothing will change.

"The more times we call it out the more times we just don't stand for it, the more people will acknowledge it. There's a mind shift that needs to happen. But if we keep sweeping it under the table, then we're always going to stay where we are."

- How the All Blacks & Springboks can win the RWC final

Samoa had just two matches against tier one countries between 2019 and 2023, so for some players, when they faced some of them in the World Cup, it was a whole new, daunting experience. "We are very good at getting up for those one-off games but you see for the likes of Argentina and Fiji that their level grows as these matches become more the norm. With that experience, they would become just another game, rather than this massive peak that we have to hit and the only way you can do that is through matches, getting the repetition and the feeling."

Amid talk of the new-look rugby calendar from 2026 onwards, Umaga can see some benefits like guaranteed fixtures, but also emphasises the need for Samoa to be facing the best teams on a more regular basis.

"Look everyone wants more games," Umaga says. "Everyone's seen the stats about matches between tier one and tier two teams, and there's not many. We know a lot of that's monetary, and we know everyone's gotta play to survive. But we have to develop these countries too and have a semblance of a level-playing field. Everyone loves the underdog story.

"Everyone's trying to protect their patch. But I think the people who govern the game need to probably have a wider view of it. They're just thinking about taking more Tests for themselves the way I see it."

Samoa have world class players, but Umaga points out how those in the Top 14 or Gallagher Premiership may not necessarily have leadership roles at those clubs. So the expectation that they can lead their nation from the front isn't necessarily an easy transition. "That leadership base is something we need to grow. Someone like Fritz Lee was huge for us as he's in a leadership role with Clermont and knows how to lead in finals. That's maybe something for my next role, develop those leaders."

That's where Moana Pasifika comes in. Umaga signed a three-year deal with the Super Rugby Pacific franchise in July 2023, charged with heralding in the next batch of Pacific Islands internationals.

"I head back into this with all the learnings and experiences I've had since I was head coach. And I suppose there are the different parts of my life -- the Pacific Islands lens, the knowledge of the New Zealand system and the Blues system. I've been in Europe, playing there so I can call on those experiences and I now put that through a Pasifika lens.

"Obviously we need to make sure that, you know, what we implement is still gonna make us successful on the field. That's what everyone wants to see yet, you know, for us it's really about developing these players and to how they can be, competitive and sustainable in this game, as well as looking at how that develops Samoa and Tonga as well going forward."

There's also an emotional attachment. Umaga frequently references the admiration he has for his parents as they left Samoa in search of a better life for their children in Wellington, New Zealand. "I'm a pretty emotional person, you know, and I feel the pull of this calling," Umaga says. "It's like the All Black jersey, and that connection to it. That's deep inside you as a youngster, I remember waking up at 3 A.M. to watch them with my dad. And it's the same with my Pasifika roots.

"There's the emotional pull and connection with my parents. It's an age-old story of them leaving Samoa for a better life for their children and we're seeing the second coming of that now. We're seeing Samoan players, the Tongan players, they are now living in Europe and we are seeing their children play there -- like my brother Mike's son Jacob who played for England. These are the opportunities made through the sacrifices of our parents and the second generation are benefiting from that. I want to ensure these next guys have a chance."

Umaga feels the growth of the sport hinges on the development of the teams below the top table. He fears that if there aren't more opportunities and funding for the so-called tier two countries then more players from the Pacific Island teams will leave the country of birth and end up playing for other international sides. To prevent this, he feels more needs to be done to give tier two countries assistance and opportunity to help them grow.

"We've been pulling this rugby cart for a long time, you know, and it's probably time now that we want to be driving the cart rather than pulling it."

Umaga had dinner with the All Blacks on Tuesday, four days after he visited the changing rooms. There were other invites this week, but he didn't want to overstep his welcome. "I don't wanna be the one guy who comes in one week, and then it doesn't go well for the team... I don't wanna be the jinx, you know? I'm very honoured to be asked but I also just don't want to bother people you know?

"I was nervous walking into that changing room after the Argentina game. You know when I played, I loved that idea of leaving the jersey in a better place, you're only on borrowed time with the All Blacks. You never take it for granted.

"Maybe I'm being silly. But after the game, that area is a sanctuary. You can relax. You look across the room, and have chats with the guys who've just been through a helluva battle with you. And then suddenly, this old guy walks in and you're thinking "oh does he want to come talk to me?" I don't know, I just don't want to be that guy, as much of an honour it is."

He's loved watching Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett in the centres, and also Anton Lienert-Brown, among others. "I think they've been amazing. They've peaked at the right time and of course I'm biased, but having a settled midfield pairing is key to doing well. Jordie was brilliant against Argentina, Rieko outstanding against Ireland and they complement each other. They've been strong on the edges, great at carrying forward and deciding when to shut things down. These guys have also come from the outside backs so they have that skillset, the speed, the kicking game and also the physical attributes of someone in midfield.

"They're coming good, but I don't think we've seen the best of them now. They're great now, but by the next World Cup, midfielders mature later in life you know, and their potential is huge."

He's also delighted for coach Ian Foster and Sam Cane and their roles in steering the team to the final, especially after their tough 2022 where they came in for criticism. "The personal attacks were hard to watch. It wasn't good to watch at all. Our game can be so fickle. Those are some of the hottest seats in New Zealand, but tall poppy syndrome is everywhere. I'm really happy for them."

On Saturday, he will be there in the stands of the Stade de France. He'll remember what it was like to pull on the famous black jersey. He'll think of his parents and the role they played. He'll have his multiple hats on -- that's what happens when you're Tana Umaga -- but for 80 minutes, he'll be living in the moment, enjoying watching the All Blacks in a World Cup final.

"I believe I'm fortunate not to look back and have too much regret," he says. "I try and live in now and present. Like I talked about before, going into the changing room, I try not to go in as an ex-All Black, I just wanna go in as a fan. But I know my reputation precedes me and everything I do.

"So on one hand, I've gotta live up to that. But on the other hand, understand that I am who I am now and I've gotta influence what I can in a way that's right. I'm learning all the time, and I'm trying my best to pass some of those lessons back too.

"But look, as my wife always says 'don't look too far ahead because you don't want to trip up over anything right in front of you'."