Rugby, league family ties boost fledglings

AARON LAWTON
Last updated 05:00 06/05/2012
Tana Umaga
Getty Images

FAMILY TIES: Former New Zealand captain Tana Umaga with his son Cade.

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If video tapes of his glorious playing days are lurking somewhere in a box in Hugh McGahan's wardrobe, his son Matt has never watched them.

Born in Sydney in 1993 after his father had officially retired, the younger McGahan is now attempting to carve out a career in dad's footsteps as a professional footballer.

In time, the comparisons between the two will be made – they always are.

But if Matt seems comfortable about that prospect it has a lot to do with the fact he, by his own admission, doesn't quite realise how good his old man was.

He knows the basics – Hugh played 32 tests for his country, captained the Kiwis and, in 1988, was crowned the world's best player.

But dad was not one to boast or even talk about his on-field exploits and when Matt signed a contract with the Melbourne Storm's under-20s in late 2010, it was in his own right after impressing in Auckland as schoolboy rugby star.

McGahan, of course, is not the only youngster with a famous surname knocking about the league scene right now and – it should also be noted – with a world of expectation on his shoulders.

At the Warriors, Jethro Friend – the son of Kiwis halfback Clayton – is turning heads while the brothers of club legends Wairangi Koopu and Motu Tony – Tama and Donald respectively – are also in a system that includes former All Black Joe Stanley's nephew Braxton, and two members of the Tuimavave dynasty – Carlos and Adam.

Across the ditch, it's a similar story. Along with McGahan at the Storm – a club that up until last year also counted Gary Freeman's son Krys as a junior on its books – is 18-year-old second-rower Cade Umaga – son of former All Blacks captain Tana – while in Sydney, Benji Marshall's younger brother Jordan in the Tigers' setup is one of a number of rising young stars with an instantly recognisable surname.

Clearly, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree and one-time Warriors coach and now head of high performance at the New Zealand Rugby League, Tony Kemp, says you need only look at their genes to see why these juniors are making waves.

"They've got good stock and if you look at where they are coming from, there is obviously some decent genetics there," he says.

"Right through the competition there are young Kiwi blokes coming through with good stock."

When it comes to rugby league, the business can be brutal. Dreams can be made or shattered on the basis of a recruitment officer's decision.

At the Warriors, the man charged with making such calls is the club's inaugural captain and 26-test Kiwi Dean Bell.

It helps, he admits, to have Friend, Koopu, Stanley, Tony or Tuimavave as your surname. But it's not, he puts it, as crucial as one might think.

"We take them as individuals but if you're looking at someone and you're not too sure about them, but you recognise that he comes from a successful family, I'd be lying if I said it didn't have an influence," Bell admits.

"But that's only if you're not too sure. Separate to that, you look at them as individuals."

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Naturally, when someone in your family's played to a high level, attempting to emulate them is never going to be easy. If dad's a legend, your cousin's a rising star and you're not so bad yourself, the comparisons are going to be made.

Bell acknowledges that's part and parcel of competing in a public sport, but believes following in a family member's rather large footsteps can be a path fraught with frustration.

"They've been brought up around the game, haven't they? But that's not to say that they all definitely go on to play the game.

"For example, my son hasn't gone into rugby league. He's more of an academic.

"But a lot of these guys have been brought up around the game and been involved at a young age and I suppose you could say it's probably a natural progression.

"I always think it's probably one of the hardest things to do – to follow in the footsteps of a parent who has been quite a successful sportsperson.

"Probably wrongly, they are always going to be compared to their parents and, if the parents have been very successful, that's unfortunate."

At 17, Tama Koopu is a kid, the experts predict, with a big future and fairly decent genes.

He's signed a three-year deal with the Warriors and is expected to make his debut for the side's under-20s at some stage this year.

His brother Wairangi, who played 159 first-grade games for the Warriors between 1999 and 2008, is confident he'll do just that, but isn't worried about the pressure on him to live up to expectation.

"I don't worry about him being compared to me," Wairangi says.

"The thing is, he's made all his own decisions already.

"If he was worried about being compared to me, he would have gone in a completely different direction. Given that he and I grew up in the same circles down in Huntly in what is quite a proud rugby league community, he was always going to follow this path.

"He's a good kid, he's worked hard, has good leadership skills and the thing is – he's probably had the benefits of seeing all the positives that can come out of a career in rugby league through me."

Such sentiments are echoed by former All Black Va'aiga Tuigamala, whose nephew David is making his way through the system as a member of Manly's under-20s team.

"I don't worry about that [him being compared] because I think we often talk about pressure and if you want to be the best you've got to be in the position where you can handle that kind of pressure.

"I was compared to the great Bryan Williams. I thought it was a great privilege ... and I'll never be Bryan Williams. I am who I am but ... the namesake carries that responsibility as well."

As for McGahan – the younger one that is – he says it actually helps that he never saw his dad dominating on a rugby league field. "The older generation know who I am and who my father is. But a lot of guys from the younger generation don't know too much," Matt says.

"I don't really mind it. I just want to try and have my own career away from what dad had.

"I think it's something that can worry you if you let it worry you. But you don't have to think like that and I've certainly never had any pressure from dad at all. We don't even talk about it and he supports me no matter what I'm doing – I am trying to strive to be the best I can be."

It's a blessing, too, to have a team-mate in Umaga who has at least as much pressure on his shoulders.

"These kids have to stand on their own two feet as well," Melbourne Storm under-20s coach Dean Pay says. "Having the last name McGahan means you are going to stand out a bit, aren't you?

"They are obviously not their fathers and their dads probably don't want them to be either. They just need to carve out their own journeys."

THE HOT LIST:

Matt McGahan (Melbourne) – son of former Kiwi Hugh.

Cade Umaga (Melbourne) – son of former All Black Tana.

Jethro Friend (Warriors) – son of former Kiwi Clayton.

Donald Tony (Warriors) – brother of former Warrior Motu.

Braxton Stanley (Warriors) – nephew of former All Black Joe.

Tama Koopu (Warriors) – brother of former Warrior Wairangi.

Carlos Tuimavave (Warriors) – cousin of former Warrior Evarn and nephew of former Kiwis Tony and Paddy.

Adam Gerrard-Tuimavave (Warriors) – cousin of Evarn and nephew of Tony and Paddy.

Jordan Marshall (Tigers) – brother of Kiwis captain Benji.

Paul Tuigamala (Sea Eagles) – nephew of former All Black Va'aiga.

Sheen Lomax (Raiders) – son of former Kiwi John.

Kaysa Pritchard (Eels) – brother of current Kiwi Frank.

Krys Freeman (Panthers) – son of former Kiwi Gary.

- Sunday Star Times

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