You have to hand it to Tana Umaga. Like fellow 30-something Brad Thorn, he is the consummate sporting professional.
There was widespread scepticism when Umaga returned from France earlier in the year to be a player/coach with Counties-Manukau in the ITM Cup. But Umaga has proved the nay-sayers wrong. Counties narrowly failed to make the top seven for next year's competition, but Umaga led a revival in rugby for the Pukekohe team.
And today, he has received his reward; he has been given a Super Rugby contract for 2011 with the Chiefs - the Herald reports:
The Chiefs announced today that All Blacks legend and Counties-Manukau representative Tana Umaga has signed with the Chiefs for the 2011 Investec Super Rugby season.
Head Coach Ian Foster said "After a number of conversations with Tana during the Counties-Manukau ITM Cup season, we are delighted to announce he will be with us for the 2011 season."
"We've been really impressed with Tana as a player and his impact with Counties on his return from Europe. We believe he will be a valuable asset to the team as he brings a high level of experience, knowledge and leadership."
Tana Umaga said he is looking forward to his new role. "I am pleased that I am still able to contribute both on and off the field. Playing for the Chiefs was a good fit as I will be able to continue to work with some of the key Counties-Manukau players, like Fritz Lee and Tim Nanai Williams."
We reckon that Umaga's return to almost the top level is a fantastic tale. He will become the oldest player to play Super Rugby, and it's notable that his career goes right back to the very first Super 12 match in Palmerston North in 1996 (which we attended), where the Auckland Blues beat the Wellington Hurricanes. The 2010 Tana Umaga may not have the explosive pace he once had, but he has the smarts, the ability to keep the ball alive, and most importantly, he still has the passion for the game.
And here's a thought. Graham Henry (should we call him an Old Boy Racer?) could do far worse than have Umaga involved with the All Black squad as RWC 2011 approaches. Whilst we hate the term "role model" in many of its usages, we reckon that Umaga is a true role model for young professional sportsmen.
We wish him every success for 2011, and who knows, even a bit beyond that.