Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Umaga ends international career

DREADLOCKED SKIPPER After playing 74 Tests for the All Blacks, 32-year-old Tana Umaga has decided to give up the black jersey to spend more time with his family


New Zealand captain Tana Umaga yesterday drew the curtain on a glittering eight-year international rugby career, announcing his retirement from playing for his country to spend more time with his family.

Umaga, 32, played 74 Tests for the All Blacks and 21 as captain after taking over in 2004. Renowned for his crunching tackling and strong running, he played his first 18 Tests on the wing before moving to outside center and inside center, scoring 36 Test tries.

"I want to spend more time with my family, and I just believe I sacrificed a lot of time with my family to wear the black jersey," he told a press conference.

"I did that willingly but now it's time for me to sacrifice something and give it back to my family," he said.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry said he was sad and disappointed by the decision of his dreadlocked skipper, but agreed with his reasons.

"I think its a reflection of Tana's strength as a person and development as a person that he's got his priorities right," Henry said.

"This day is a special day I think. This is one of the great All Blacks and he's retiring from the game. He was great as a player, he was very brave, led from the front, a fine defender, a huge determination to win -- one of the great All Black captains," he said.

Umaga was born near Wellington of Samoan parents and was the first player of Pacific Island descent to captain the All Blacks.

His final season was an exceptional one for the national side, who swept the Lions 3-0, won the Tri-Nations competition, and pulled off a Grand Slam win over Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.

The year was marred only by a controversial tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in the first minute of the first Lions Test, which put the Irishman out of the rest of the tour.

But Umaga was otherwise admired as one of the game's hardest but fairest players.

Yesterday's announcement ended months of speculation following unconfirmed press reports late last year that Umaga would be playing his last match against Scotland on Nov. 26. He first broached the possibility of retirement with Henry in June last year but the coach persuaded him the prospect of the Grand Slam -- only the second for the All Blacks in a century -- was too good to miss.

He told his fellow players after the Scotland Test he had played his last match in the black jersey but asked them to keep it secret so he could tell his family on his return to New Zealand.

His likely successor as skipper is flanker Richie McCaw, who yesterday refused to speculate on his chances of taking over.

McCaw also had praise for Umaga, saying he was the man every player looked to for a cool head and wise words when a game was not going well.

"That's going to be a huge loss," he said.

Although Umaga was injured in the first match of the 2003 World Cup and missed the rest of the tournament, he was not tempted to hang on for next year's World Cup in France.

"I don't think I was ready to make that sacrifice again. My kids have got older now and I want to play a major part in their lives growing up," he said.

The veteran added there was no physical reason to quit.

"I think my body is in the best shape I've ever been in and so I believe I could have gone around again," Umaga said.

He will continue to play for the Wellington Hurricanes in the Super 14 competition and for his Wellington provincial side until his contract expires next year.

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