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Umaga carving his own path

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England prospect Jacob Umaga carving his own path in New Zealand

Auckland utility and former England U20 representative Jacob Umaga is set for his biggest test since heading to New Zealand in early 2018.

The 20-year-old – currently on loan from Premiership side Wasps – is in Alama Ieremia’s starting lineup for an all-important clash with Wellington that will set the tone for the remainder of the side’s provincial campaign.

Umaga made his run-on debut for Auckland last week against Otago, showing some impressive flashes in the No. 15 jersey despite the side losing for the first time this season.

“The body was definitely sore afterward,” Umaga told RugbyPass. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played 80 minutes, but good to finally get out there with a start. Kind of a dream come true to get to wear that 15 shirt – first time in a long time as well – so that was good.”

Injuries in the backline triggered a reshuffle and afforded Umaga his first extended run of the season, and he took full advantage with a performance that was sure to please eager fans back in Coventry.

He finished his first start with 47 run metres – good for second among Auckland’s starting backs – beat five defenders and broke the line twice, including splitting a pair of Otago players with his first touch before slipping away an offload. His solid attacking efforts were coupled with sound defending as the young playmaker made six tackles during the contest.

England-born Umaga is ready to run it back in the No. 15 jersey on Thursday night, where he will be up against some familiar faces at a ground that bears special significance. Umaga’s cousin Thomas Umaga-Jensen will line up in the midfield, filling a role once occupied by uncle and All Blacks greats Tana Umaga and Ieremia during their respective stints in New Zealand’s capital.

“I know them pretty well, I know they’re some big boys,” Umaga said of cousin Thomas and his twin brother Peter. “We’ve never actually played against each other so this will be the first time, hopefully, if Thomas is involved or if Peter is involved. Good to get out there and play against them, I know I’ll try and keep away from them.”

As for uncle Tana’s long history at Wellington’s famous ‘Cake Tin’, Umaga keeps things in perspective.

“I’ve kind of kept it to the back of my mind,” he said. “Just another game for me, but I know there’s a bit of history there between the Umaga and the Westpac [Stadium].”

Umaga came to Auckland in hopes of developing his game further before heading back to Wasps and is pleased with the progress he has made this season.

“I didn’t think I’d get this far with the squad but just to get involved and learn, I’ve learned a lot from the guys here,” he explained. “The speed of the game’s definitely a lot different to what I’m used to playing so that’s good.”

Ieremia shared this sentiment after Umaga’s first start. “I was very proud of Jacob because obviously, he got his first run-on and an opportunity to play and show his skills,” the former All Black said. “It was a really good confidence booster for him.”

The versatile Umaga has the ability to float around the backline and cover multiple positions but sees himself as a playmaker first and foremost. When asked what he felt his strengths were on the field, Umaga immediately cited his decision-making and playmaking skills.

“I’m not the biggest of guys so I try to use my fitness and my speed to get around the bigger guys on the field,” he added.

Umaga has long been part of England’s development pathway – representing his country throughout the age-grade levels – and has made seven senior-level appearances for Wasps. He should build on that figure upon his return, and has been following the club intently during his time away.

“I’ve been trying to keep a close eye,” Umaga said. “With the time zone difference it’s been pretty hard to find out but I see that Lima’s doing pretty well, settling in pretty well so that’s good to see.”

No doubt it will be Coventry fans and staff alike who will be keeping a close eye when Umaga runs out for Auckland on Thursday night as the youngster tries to stun the Wellington crowd, just like the Umagas before him.

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England prospect Jacob Umaga carving his own path in New Zealand