Steelers' mighty cup win
Counties Manukau rugby has a new legend. He is Tana Umaga.
The former All Black great is legend for making winners of the Steelers.
Their 44-16 ITM Cup championship final win over Otago at ECOLight Stadium last Friday night, a result that will see them trading punches with rugby's heavyweights next year, gave rise to the loudest support and celebrations among Steelers fans since the days of Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri.
Those last two legends of Counties Manukau rugby were on hand to watch the triumph, as jubilant as the near-record crowd of 12,000 long-suffering Steelers supporters who roared their team home.
It was one of the biggest crowds at a Steelers game in years and they left with a newfound sense of optimism and an expectation that with Umaga at the helm the Steelers will be a provincial rugby force sooner rather than later.
That's because Umaga and his right-hand man Steve Jackson have turned a team of largely second stringers into one of the most potent in the ITM Cup.
The coach-killing moments so characteristic of the Steelers still litter their game. But they're overshadowed by an exceptional ability to create opportunities.
Add speed, add flair and you have a team with the capacity to score breathtaking tries from any part of the paddock.
It was refreshing, it was entertaining and it's why Steelers' jerseys are selling like hot cakes again.
The five tries scored against Otago in the grand final took the Steelers' tally for the season to 41, 18 more than last year.
Wing Sherwin Stowers topped the try-scoring with seven and fullback Tim Nanai Williams and second five Bundee Aki each scored six. Blues-bound first five Baden Kerr tallied 136 points for the campaign.
Only premiership winners Canterbury, Taranaki and Wellington scored more in the round robin.
The Steelers were also a better defensive unit. They conceded 35 fewer points than last season when they finished 11th overall and fourth in the championship division.
This year they won eight of their 12 matches. Three of the losses were to premiership teams Auckland, Hawke's Bay and Waikato.
Tasman was the only championship team to beat them, the nine-point loss the Steelers' biggest losing margin of the year.
The statistics are all evidence of the newfound resolve on defence and another encouraging trait - standing strong under pressure.
Previous teams would have buckled against Auckland, Hawke's Bay and Waikato but the Steelers hung tough instead to snatch bonus points from each match.
That attitude also saw them produce a huge come-from-behind win against Southland in the semifinal.
All that points to the influence Umaga has had on the team in his first year in sole charge.
The way his players rave about him suggests they'd play on a bed of hot coals if he asked them to.
Umaga says he finally feels like a coach after five years as an apprentice.
"I only teach what I know from my experiences so I pass those on and hopefully it's enough for some of these guys. I don't think you ever finishing being a student in rugby because the game changes, the laws change so you've just got to make sure you're up-to-date and able to adapt and so I'll keep doing that.
"I'm still trying to come up with ideas in trying to make us better but the good thing is we have a great base to build from."
Umaga says he is fortunate to have such a receptive group of players and an assistant like Jackson.
He also mentioned the help he got from league great Ruben Wiki and the Blues scrum doctor Mike Casey.
And he paid tribute to Milton Haig, the man he succeeded as Steelers coach, and others who had created the pathways and moved on.
Haig, who is now coaching Georgia, was largely responsible for getting the core of his team together, Umaga says.
"I think it's just a bit of luck really.
"He [Haig] brought us in and he already had a lot of these players."
The team wants to build a positive legacy for the South Auckland community and they're grateful to the thousands who were at the final.
"We'd love to have that support. You saw what it did for us in the second half, especially when we had them yelling. You could see the players physically lift.
"We're going to need more of that in the premiership next year."
And there is no doubting the pride Umaga has in his players.
They've won him his first trophy. It's a win he is unlikely to forget because, as he says, "this has to rank right up there".
Counties Manukau will have to step up if they are to make a home for themselves in the premiership next season, he says. The planning has already started.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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