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FEATURE Jacob Umaga: 'I would absolutely love to play for Samoa'

Jacob Umaga: 'I would absolutely love to play for Samoa'
3 months ago

Jacob Umaga’s hands sweep from one side of his torso to the other. They run up and down his arms and across his chest, tracing a map of the ink which flows beneath a baggy Benetton hoodie.

Tattoos have always held deep resonance for Umaga; half-English, half-Samoan, with a bit of Kiwi thrown in for good measure. The motifs are a visceral, prominent reminder of where he’s been and who he is. They chart the lineage of his people back close to a century, to the Samoan villages of Leulumoega and Sagone, where his grandfather and grandmother grew up before leaving for Wellington over 50 years ago, to the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, the West Midlands of England and now, all this time later, to the Italian canal city, Treviso.

“I’ve got a piece from my chest to my left shoulder which says ‘family’ in Samoan, and the things around it are about family, travelling and safety,” Umaga begins. “I’ve got a Maori sleeve on my left arm done by a Maori tattooist from New Zealand, and his piece was around my heritage and family. A lot of my tattoos are about family and strength.

Jacob Umaga joined Benetton in October 2022 after the demise of Wasps and has signed a new deal through to 2026 (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“I have a fern on my right arm which symbolises my time on loan from Wasps with Auckland in New Zealand, and another part of that is Samoan to tie the two together. The back of each arm is the two villages my grandparents are from back in Samoa.

“We’ve travelled so far from where my grandparents were in Samoa, now I’m living and playing rugby in Italy. It’s something I like to carry with me while I’m travelling and playing, to have my family on me at all times.”

Umaga is the proud owner of this beautifully poignant artwork, a clothing line with his old pal Paolo Odogwu, and one of rugby’s most familiar surnames. His father, Mike, played for Manu Samoa in the 1990s. Uncle Fa’alogo Tana is instantly recognisable as a storied former All Black captain of more than 70 Tests. Even Umaga’s English mother, Michelle, was a talented rugby league player and coach who met Mike when he relocated to sign for Halifax.

Come July, three years will have passed since Umaga’s first and only England cap. The door to Test rugby will creak open again, and how the fly-half longs to walk back through it in the blue of his father’s nation.

I’ve played for England but the longer I am away from it, the more I want to find out about my Samoan heritage and learn more about the culture.

“When you grow up playing video games and you pick your nationality, I used to always pick mine as Samoan, never English. As you get older and play England U16s, U18s, you feel more English.

“The time in England has sailed, even to be playing in England at the moment. I class myself as 50-50, I represented one half of my family, my mum’s side, and I would absolutely love to one day play for Samoa and represent them as well. This summer I am eligible to play.

“I’ve played for England but the longer I am away from it, the more I want to find out about my Samoan heritage and learn more about the culture.”

Umaga is unabashed in his ambition and there is no doubt he would be a precious asset to Samoa. Their fly-halves at the World Cup were 33-year-old Lima Sopoaga, a former Wasps team-mate, and 37-year-old Christian Leali’ifano and there is a need for new blood at number 10. Umaga will have just turned 29 when the next global showpiece rolls around, with a brainful of European game-running experience.

If Samoa are keen, it shouldn’t take much to make their interest known. A message on the family WhatsApp chat might do it. Recently, Umaga’s uncle was part of Vaovasamanaia Seilala Mapusua’s coaching staff and is currently in charge of Moana Pasifika. Mapusua departed the national post in strange – and seemingly rancourous – circumstances after the World Cup so there has been no communication from the Samoan camp.

“My dad played in the 1995 World Cup and I would love to wear the same jersey he wore that long ago. A World Cup is every player’s dream, and if that ever came around, I would be more than happy.

“I had a chat with my uncle a couple of summers ago about whether I’d ever be excited to play for Samoa and I said I’d love to. If it’ll be, it’ll be. If not, I’m at peace – I’m an international rugby player, capped at that level.”

Brothers Mike and Tana Umaga faced off for Samoa and New Zealand in a Test match back in 1999 (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

Things change quickly in the choppy waters of elite sport. Umaga, alas, knows this all too painfully. A local boy, he merrily made his way with Wasps, rose through the ranks to score a try in a Premiership final and earn his England cap when in October 2022 the place suddenly, and shockingly, sank beneath the waterline. Like falling buffalo, bastions of the English club scene wheezed out of existence. The demise of Wasps perhaps most staggering of all.

“Some of us had come through the academy together, lived with each other since we were 18… to have it taken away from you and be dispersed across the world in three weeks, was horrible. It took me well over a year to process and understand what had gone on.

“I’d have loved to have stayed at Wasps my whole career, but looking back on it, I don’t know if I ever would have left, and being out in Italy is something completely different.

“The Benetton situation luckily came through. I was very much on the way to a ProD2 team but I knew [coach] Andrea Masi before from Wasps, Benetton had an injury crisis and a spot free. I didn’t know much about them before. I knew they played in green and that was about it. If I hadn’t have gone, I don’t think I’d have imagined myself playing in Italy.”

In these tumultuous times, Umaga found an outlet. He and Odogwu, one of three more ex-Wasps to join the pivot at Benetton, founded Composure Club, designing and selling their own unisex streetwear.

A sport predicated so firmly on the principle of team first, individual second does not always cater to this kind of thing. Rugby players can still operate in a personality straitjacket. The very values at the centre of the game often curtail expression and thus, hold the whole sport back.

Yes, people love that I can kick a ball from 50m but they want to know what’s going on in my private life.

Rugby cannot continue in this vein. It must celebrate its bright personalities if it is to attract new fans and new investment and draw the global appeal it is capable of generating.

“When we came through, we still had a couple of old heads at Wasps so any time we had a team social, Paolo would dress very out-there, and they would look at him and ask ‘why are you wearing that’. He wore things because he liked them. I was always quite interested in fashion and during lockdown Paolo made me a t-shirt for my birthday. We thought, why not give the clothing line a go? We’ve got nothing to lose, we are expressing ourselves and it keeps our minds off rugby.

“While social media is here, we might as well make something off it. The NRL are doing very good things – a lot of inside access, podcasts where players talk quite freely, and those guys really express themselves. I’d love to see rugby keep going forward in that way. It’s still quite a bit off in the old-school narrative but people like ourselves building brands is pretty good.

“There’s no right answer for what we can do but bringing new ideas and new people into the fold [would help]. While content is here to be made, make it. Yes, people love that I can kick a ball from 50m but they want to know what’s going on in my private life

“The Netflix Six Nations documentary was a good start, but there’s a lot more to be done. People want to see the other side of rugby players. They see the other side of NFL players and footballers, and that’s the next step. Once that happens people can build their own personal brands and then businesses will see oh, rugby is taking off, maybe we can invest in it.”

Having spent all his days in Coventry, Umaga was a little taken aback when he fetched up at Benetton. Treviso is stunning, pretty buildings and fabulous restaurants perched by the canals woven through the city. But the rugby setup was joltingly different from the luxuries he had enjoyed at home.

“They are still quite behind in their professionalism. They only brought protein supplements and protein bars into training quite recently. At Wasps we had an amazing chef who would cook us breakfast, lunch and food to take home for dinner. Italy is renowned for food, but here the food isn’t great, it’s not something they put their time into. That type of thing was a shock to us.

World Cup-winning former All Black Malakai Fekitoa is among Benetton’s eye-catching recruits as they target new ground for Italian rugby (Photo by Alessandro Levati/Getty Images)

“From what I’ve since learned, they’re very big on the physical side of rugby, they do a lot of contact, a lot of tackling, a lot of gym stuff. You can tell these boys are in great shape and have amazing tackle technique, but in terms of micro-details, where we’d have coaches who would specialise in those areas, that’s the disparity I found. It’s something we’ve tried to do as foreigners to bridge the gap in that level of professionalism.

“The off-field stuff, we’re two hours from the mountains, an hour from the beach, you’ve got Venice, Verona, you can get to Rome, you can go wherever you want. It’s so easy to do all these things.”

Whatever food they’ve been serving up at training, Benetton have delivered some gourmet fare where it matters. They have the bulk of an exhilarating Italy side in their number and a clutch of cleverly recruited overseas additions. Umaga has extended terms for two more years.

Benetton began the season like a steam train, winning 10 of 13 matches until the Six Nations break. They are in decent shape to earn a URC play-off for only the second time, and host Connacht on Sunday for a place in the Challenge Cup semi-finals. Last year, they beat Cardiff to become the first Italian side to reach that rarified level before eventual winners Toulon put them out in a sizzling Stade Mayol.

“We’ve got the talent,” Umaga says. “Playing at home in this quarter-final could be a big advantage. Our fans are unbelievable. We’ve learned a lot from the Toulon game how to manage the big stadiums, the big crowds, and it’s something we want to keep pushing on to.”

You can imagine Benetton’s rise continuing apace, just as vividly as you can picture Jacob Umaga in the striking colours of Manu Samoa. Maybe then he’ll have cause for more seminal body art.

Comments

2 Comments
J
Jasyn 88 days ago

Samoa have enough former internationals who want to flick a switch for a country most have probably hardly set foot in. If you’re that passionate about Samoa, go live and play rugby there to qualify instead of just waltzing into the side and kicking a player actually from Samoa out of the squad.

All these ex internationals hasn’t really made them that much more competitive because most look like they're going through the motions.

J
Jon 93 days ago

Come on. farther and uncle born in New Zealand, we can at least get enough kiwi acclaim in there to suggest he play club rugby in the south as well as for Samoa!

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