Tana Umaga has those Al Pacino eyes. The ones that look right through you. You can imagine him holding the changing room in thrall, like Pacino in Any Given Sunday, talking about pride and honour.
You can picture balls of fire spitting from his mouth and the Blues players he coaches grabbing their scrumcaps, getting ready to run through brick walls.
But that’s the fairy tale. The bags under Umaga’s eyes betray the toil behind his coaching failures – first at Toulon in France during the start of club president Mourad Boudjellal’s renaissance and then at the Blues in New Zealand for an under par, three-year stint.
Coaching has hit the All Black great hard. So hard, in fact, that his Blues team finished second from the bottom in Super Rugby last year and were once again the New Zealand conference whipping boys. The failure was abject.
For Phiwe Nomlomo, the most talked-about black African coach in South Africa at the moment, Umaga’s ability to pick himself up after getting knocked down is the trait he admires most in coaches. Keep your World Cup winners like Jake White, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen. He wants some of that Umaga, never-give-up stuff.
Despite his achievements as head coach at Selborne College in East London, Nomlomo wants to hang on the lips of a man whose toughness is woven into his dreadlocks, but whose humility is skin deep. He knows for a coach – especially a black coach in South African rugby – tough times are always around the corner.
Drawn by Umaga’s humility
“If I could pick anyone to sit down with for a month, I would choose Tana Umaga,” Nomlomo says. “He has done his time. He took over the Blues and now he just stepped down to become an assistant coach and no longer head coach.
“I would love to hear about that transition. Those are the people you learn from because when it’s dark one day, you’ll be prepared. As part of the minority in rugby, in order to stand out you’ve got to be twice as good.
“I would love to hear about those challenges and how to deal with the board. I’d love to hear what it’s like to step down and work with the same coaching team in a lesser position.”
Umaga did what a lot of head coaches are afraid to do: step aside and let someone better equipped take over. Incredibly, Umaga chose to swap roles with his assistant Leon MacDonald, a man he brought into the management setup himself in May last year.
“I think it’s the egolessness of him that appeals to me. He doesn’t show too much emotion publicly. How does he get to be so calm under pressure?” asks Nomlomo.
“He lost a lot of games as Blues head coach yet he had a lot of All Blacks coming from the same team. The contrast is amazing. I am not too fixated with someone who is doing well but I would love to hear about the challenges. As a black coach, you need to brace yourself for a career filled with challenges.”
An onward road paved with challenges
There are no black Super Rugby head coaches in South Africa at the moment and no franchise team has ever trusted a black African to head up their team. Nomlomo knows that this is the landscape he will enter, maybe soon.
Right now Nomlomo, 32, is the talk of the rugby town. Rumours over rugby picket fences are that he could succeed Sean Erasmus as SA Schools coach; a massive nod of approval from the mother body, SA Rugby. He is one of three candidates that include King Edward School head coach Mziwakhe Nkosi.
His rugby journey has been paved with challenges he’s had to overcome. When tough times hit, he will be ready to retaliate. The boy from Tsomo in the Eastern Cape fell in love with the game at Gonubie Primary School in East London.
Rugby was a world away from what he and his family knew. They moved to East London for the better schooling the coastal town could provide, but little did they know their son would get swallowed up into rugby and come out the other side a man.
“We knew nothing about rugby,” he says. “In fact, we knew nothing about sport in general. I didn’t have siblings or parents or uncles that played the game. A good mate of mine, Ncedo ‘Chester’ Koyana, got me into the game when I arrived at Gonubie Primary. He was the person who seemed to be ahead of me when it came to rugby.
“I even followed him to Selborne College when he went there for high school, and to the Sharks after he made the academy. I was just following in his footsteps. Growing up, he was certainly the most influential rugby person in my life.”
After excelling as a centre-cum-utility back at Selborne, his ascent straightened. His rise as a player took on the familiar linear complexion. Everyone knows that the quickest route between two points in rugby is through a traditional rugby school, Craven Week in 2004 and the Sharks straight after that.
Bulls vs Sharks
The Sharks actually snatched him from the Bulls. To be on the radar of both those unions spoke volumes of his talent. He chose the Sharks Academy, following his good mate Chester and the guidance of mentor Greg Miller, his teacher and coach. But he arrived in Durban when the Sharks had one of their best youth ensembles of all time.
He remembers: “It was the time when Swys de Bruin was still the academy director. I had left school as a centre and when I got there, I had to compete with Brad Barritt, Waylon Murray, Scott Spedding and JP Pietersen.
“The Sharks Academy was something else. These guys were already being mentioned by Dick Muir that they would possibly play Super Rugby the very next year.
“They were twice as tall, twice as big and you quickly realised that it’s not high school anymore. But I had the time of my life. I learnt to adapt and to train hard.
“Without a doubt, something special was in the air and you could tell this was the start of something special. A lot of those Under-19s in 2005 went on to play Currie Cup that same year and, in 2007, they helped the Sharks reach the Super Rugby final.”
From there he moved back home, to Border in the Eastern Cape, after opportunities dried up mainly because he did not fit South Africa’s archaic size profile. Skilful, diminutive players weren’t – and still aren’t – hot cakes for rugby coaches.
A blessing in disguise
After a couple of years, he called time on his playing career at just 24, following a frank conversation with then Bulldogs coach David Maidza in 2010.
The biggest lesson he learnt in rugby, which has stood him in good stead as a coach, he learnt at this juncture. At the Sharks, he lived in the ever-eroding space between promise and fulfilment. At Border he joined an erratic setup where they never sweated the small stuff. He learnt that you have to be honest with players no matter what.
The cement of his coaching foundations dried the day he walked out of that meeting with Maidza, even if he didn’t know it yet.
“There were times as a player where I thought I was at a good place, but that was only in my mind,” Nomlomo says. “The coach would lead you into that sort of thinking, but then it would become a different story when it came to game time.
“I cut my playing time by six years – far too early. I wish I had pushed on for another two seasons to see where that was going to take me. I had told myself that I was going to give rugby a go for another three or four seasons and only then will I call time.
“In December – not even in October when they are supposed to – the coach said to me, ‘Listen champ, I’m not gonna renew your contract.’
“But being culled from the team that year was a blessing in disguise when I look back at it. I wasn’t even upset. It made sense. And I appreciated David’s honesty. As a coach now, you try and pick out what you can use from the different environments you were in.
“I learnt from being at Border that you have to try your best to be as professional and transparent as possible. There were a lot of times where players were frustrated.
“It was the same thing at the Sharks, where I learnt to let the players know exactly where they stood at all times. Honesty with players is key.”
Returning to Selborne
He began his post-playing career as an educator at his alma mater, Selborne, which progressed into coaching. He volunteered first with the Under-16s before assisting the first team coach.
A spark was lit throughout the province and he quickly rose to become a coach at the now defunct EP Kings Academy, under director Robbi Kempson, in 2016. The shambles that was Kings rugby back then meant adversity wasn’t far off.
“In the limited time at the Kings I really learnt a lot, especially from Robbi Kempson,” he says.
“During the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, we had the opportunity to do some work with the senior coaches such as Dave Williams, Deon Davids, Vuyo Zangqa and Chumani Booi.
“That made the experience totally worthwhile. But it got to a point where things weren’t conducive for one to stay, unfortunately, and I’d reached a place in my career where, if I wanted to get to the next level, I needed to be a head coach.
“Fortunately, that ambition coincided with this great opportunity to come back and be head coach of the school when Allan Miles left.”
The simple approach
The return to East London last year to coach his old school team proved to be the best decision he could have made. His Selborne boys massacred longtime rivals Queens College 76-13, humiliated Dale College 66-17 and thumped Hudson Park 54-10.
The Border Craven Week team in which Nomlomo served as James Winstanley’s assistant had 16 of his Selborne boys in the 23-member squad at Paarl Boys’ High School. They swept aside a highly regarded Free State outfit and six of their boys made the SA Schools team (five from Selborne College).
Names such as Thomas Bursey, Jacques Goosen and Sibabalwe Xamlashe were rolling off commentators’ tongues. They were an aberration. How did a school produce such talent from a province in so much disarray?
It has everything to do with Nomlomo’s culture-centric approach to building a team environment and the huge fortune of having the Border Schools body being semi-detached from the senior provincial body.
His approach is about simplicity. The boys are only there to have fun and to entertain. He is into simple pleasures and gets his high from watching his boys cross the white line every so often.
Champagne plaudits are likely to follow if Selborne has a similarly great season this year. Provincial and national admirers are already aplenty. But he treats praise and criticism as equals.
“I’m just a laaitie from eTsomo at the end of the day.”