There is an overwhelming sense of dread these days every time news comes through from France. It’s a sure bet the saga in Toulon will have taken a new twist; that Tana Umaga will have tumbled yet closer to humiliation.
The eccentric owner of Toulon, Mourad Boudjellal, will have likely made some more disparaging remarks or have suggested he’s ready to ship in a container of monkeys to keep the club’s Top 14 aspirations alive.
On and on this story rumbles and, with every week, Umaga’s reputation slides that little bit further. His mana becomes that little bit less.
Toulon are now relegation contenders having won just three league games. No one in France appears to be taking them even remotely seriously.
Umaga is in the most awkward spot – where there is an operational shortfall between the ambition of the owner and the ability of the squad. One element is fixed – Boudjellal’s dream of winning a championship with Toulon. He won’t rest until there is a big silver cup plonked on the boardroom table.
Asking Boudjellal to lower his sights is not an option. Powerful men buy vanity products like rugby clubs for a reason and Boudjellal has spent enough to be justified in demanding a better return for his cash.
Umaga has 12 games left in which to convince the club’s owner that he deserves another season at the helm.
Toulon’s season is over in terms of challenging for honours. Their key objectives now are staying in the Top 14 and playing well enough to keep their respective contracts.
Sadly, it has reached the point where it’s hard to see either Umaga or Toulon surviving. The saddest part is the inevitability of Umaga’s demise.
This was a job he should never have taken, but for the money.
He was destined to fail. Boudjellal gave him a chequebook and said ‘knock yourself out’.
But rugby is not like football where money can be used to buy an eclectic group of stars who can get by on the brilliance of the individuals. Rugby is about the collective – the sum of the best sides is always greater than the component parts. The strategy of excessive and aggressive recruitment was all wrong, made worse by Boudjellal allegedly making acquisitions without consulting his coach.
It was exacerbated by Umaga falling into the classic trap of surrounding himself with people he knew. He brought his old friend Lipi Sinnot over from Wellington as a defensive coach – even though Sinnot was a masseur and baggage man with the All Blacks. Kiwi Rob Nicholson was hired as the team’s physio and then of course, there is the legion of New Zealanders in the playing ranks.
Ben Castle, Tusi Pisi and Orene Ai’i all failed to make any impact in New Zealand. Sonny Bill Williams has never played union and Jerry Collins, with the best will in the world, is barely half the player he once was.
Former All Black Saimone Taumoepeau is the only New Zealander to have made any impression which is why last November respected French paper L’Equipe was in no doubt about the source of Toulon’s problems: “In short, it is this entire New Zealand old boys network that is at fault.”
Bringing together a load of failed Super 14 players that included Western Force bad boy Matt Henjak, former Reds centre Mafi Kefu and Stormers lock Ross Skeate hardly felt like it was going to turn Toulon into title contenders.
But all those players spoke English. They would all understand how Umaga wanted them to play and be familiar with the pace and patterns he wanted.
Umaga may well end up regretting his decision to take a comfort blanket to Toulon. To the outside world, it looks as if he was the child let loose in the sweet shop who ploughed his hand into the only jar he recognised only to discover he didn’t actually like what was in there.
Boudjellal has done his bit in undermining the standing of his coach, too. In December he hired former Springbok coach Jake White to consult on where the club was going wrong.
If Toulon are relegated, Umaga will almost certainly be fired. If Toulon stay up, Umaga will almost certainly be fired. Boudjellal is a man who is blown by the wind. He is impulsive, emotional and not necessarily governed by rational thought.
Should Umaga’s time at Toulon come to an end this season, where next will he wash up? So much of what he built as a player has been undermined by the tragedy of Toulon.
The last 12 months will stick to Umaga like a cheap suit long after he leaves the South of France.
The only way forward for Umaga as a coach is to take a big step down. To serve an apprenticeship out of the limelight and to learn his craft.
Boudjellal has made us all forget that Umaga is a great leader, a thinker, a motivator and, potentially, an outstanding coach. He’s no joke figure.
Hopefully, Umaga will escape from his French nightmare soon and effectively start his coaching career again. Then we can all lose our sense of dread about what nonsense this All Black great will be subjected to next.
This article was originally posted on www.nzherald.co.nzTweet