Heading into 2020, there was one player that was a certain selection in the Hurricanes midfield. While Ngani Laumape had struggled to earn regular game time for the national team, there were no questions around how important a cog he was in the Hurricanes backline.
Who partnered Laumape in the centres was a bigger concern, however.
Vince Aso was the incumbent – but perhaps lacked some of the finer skills required of a midfielder and loomed as a better option on the wing.
Billy Proctor was the star-in-the-making – a man who the Hurricanes had signed on a five-year deal when he was just 19-years-old.
Danny Toala, another youngster, was a key member of the Hastings Boys High School First XV that demolished many a side on their way to back-to-back national finals.
Then there was Peter Umaga-Jensen, the nephew of All Blacks legend Tana Umaga but a player that probably attracted less fuss than the other options the Hurricanes had at their disposal.
Proctor and Aso were given the first opportunities to present their cases but neither player really commanded the starting role. Finally, in the fourth round of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Hurricanes ninth match of the season, Umaga-Jensen was given an opportunity to showcase his talents – and suddenly the problematic position was a problem no more.
Umaga-Jensen took to the role like a duck to water and by the season’s end, was an obvious pick for the Hurricanes.
Unfortunately, he and Laumape managed just three appearances together. In the Hurricanes’ exceptional streak-ending win over the Crusaders in Christchurch, Laumape suffered a broken arm, ending his season.
Again, Aso and Proctor were given opportunities in the final two games of the campaign – but it was Umaga-Jensen who was the constant.
Now, entering the second game of the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, it’s finally time for the 23-year-old to re-forge his combination with Laumape.
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Umaga-Jensen was named on the bench for last week’s clash, having missed a chunk of pre-season training due to the arrival of a new baby. The impetus that he added late in the game was clear for all to see and now that he’s had a full week of training under his belt, coach Jason Holland has reinstated him in the No 13 jersey.
“Pete’s one change we’ve made,” Holland said following the team announcement on Friday. “We thought Billy was really solid last week and his work rate was second to none but we’ve gone with the Ngani/Pete combination in midfield – a full-on attacking mindset around that.
“He’s a hard man to defend so we’re looking to make sure we have multiple threats in the Crusaders defensive line so that they have to make some decisions. Both Ngans and Pete, we’d back them to win one-on-one collisions so that’s part of our thinking.”
On a per-game basis, Umaga-Jensen ranked first on tackle busts, eighth on metres gained and fourth on linebreaks in last year’s Aotearoa season, illustrating how damaging he can be with the ball in hand.
Naturally, Holland will be hoping for a similar impact against the Crusaders in Christchurch this weekend.
With two exceptional defenders in the forms of Dallas McLeod and Jack Goodhue named in the midfield for the home side, there’ll be a few titanic collisions in the middle of the park.
Sunday’s match between the Crusaders and Hurricanes kicks off at 4:35pm NZT and will be broadcast live and on-demand on RugbyPass for subscribers with a tournament or weekend pass.
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