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Where to play Tana?
Where to play Tana?
(a recent history of All Black No 13 jersey)
25 Jun 2002
[RANT]
Since AT started this topic and there has been a bit of discussion on the board about it let's recap why Tana is playing at Centre at all.

Since Frank Bunce retired at the end of the 1997 season the search has been on for someone to claim the no. 13 jersey as their own.

In 1998 the jersey was filled by Mark Mayerholfer, Caleb Ralph, Scott Macleod, and Eroni Clarke, none of which were able to hold onto it for more than a couple of tests (to be fair the ABs had a horror year so stability in selection wasn't something many of the team enjoyed).

In 1999 leading up to the World Cup Daryl Gibson and Alama Ieremia shared the 12 and 13 spots, with Ieremia wearing 13 most of the time I believe.

But come RWC time and the desire to squeeze Cullen, Lomu, Wilson and Umaga into the starting lineup meant that this combo was broken up, and Cullen was moved into the 13 jersey.

Gibson and Alatini got a game against Italy but apart from that game Cullen played 13 for the entire world cup.

Most people would agree that this was a failed experiment, although Cully played pretty well (and he definitely can't be blamed for losing to France in the semi) it was a terrible waste of his talents as he never really got to run with any space, and his outside backs probably suffered because he took on the line more than a traditional centre should, Cully's not the 2nd leading All Black try scorer because he passes the ball well!

In 2000 Wilson solved this bottle neck by retiring, which meant that Cullen could return to 15 and the back three of Lomu, Umaga and Cullen was consistant throughout the year.

Ieremia and Alatini shared the mid-field combo through most of the 2000 Tri-Nations series, with Mark Robinson getting a run against South Africa and Scotland instead of Ieremia.

Ieremia retired at that point and Mark Robinson injured himself in the NPC, which meant that the no. 13 job was wide open for the Northern hemisphere tour.

This time, instead of trying to convert Cully back to Centre, Tana Umaga was given the job. It helped of course that he was quite keen to give the position a try and saw it as a long term positional change rather than a stop gap experiment like the Cullen move in RWC 99.

Moving Tana gave Doug Howlett a chance to break into the starting lineup too, although when Wilson came out of retirement in 2001 he reclaimed the 14 jersey from Howlett on a couple of occasions, playing 15 at other times ahead for Leon Macdonald. (Cullen was out injured)

Tana wore the no 13 test jersey right through 2001 (Nathan Mauger got a couple of mid week games in 13 for the touring All Blacks at the end of 2001 but no tests).

Tana has played pretty well at Centre, although as AT pointed out in his article he is no longer the try-scoring machine he was on the Wing. While his mid-field defense is first class (and he is almost as good as a loosie at forcing the turnover) there is some debate as to how well he distributes the ball to his outsides.

He has also played there for the Hurricanes and Wellington Lions, again well, but it would be interesting to see whether Jonah's touches and scoring opportunities have gone down since Tana made the shift inside him at all 3 levels.

That's pretty much the recent history of No 13 and brings us up to 2002, on the eve of this years Tri-Nations, and building towards the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

So far this season the All Black 13 jersey has been shared by Tana and a resurgent Mark Robinson, who has fully recovered from an injury plagued 2000 and 2001 and definitely helped his re-selection by playing a key role for the all conquering 2002 Crusaders.

Both guys have played fine there but Robinson's team had a far better game against Ireland last week than Umaga's did the week before. I know you can't credit one played (particularly a centre) with the performance of an entire team but it could be a factor in the selectors minds.

Interestingly Umaga played back on the wing for the NZ Barbarians vs the NZ Maori on Friday night and looked great. His defence was still first rate but playing on the wing seemed to give him so much more space and opportunity to use his class.

We can never know what might have happened if Mark Robinson hadn't been injured in 2000, but he was the second choice No 13 behind Ieremia that year, so he would have been in with a great shot at getting the starting jersey on the end of season tour that year if he was healthy. Probably leaving Tana on the wing.

Now that he looks to be back to his best, and works so well with his Crusaders team-mates inside him I reckon the starting No 13 jersey should be Robinson's going into the Tri-Nations.

As for Tana, move him back to the Wing. I'm sorry Doug and Caleb, you guys are very competent but Tana is world class (on the wing at least). I think he showed in the NZ BaBas game that he hasn't lost any of his pace and his work-rate on defence is probably even better now, having played at centre for the last two seasons.

Another plausible solution would be to leave Howlett on and move Jonah to the bench, to be used as the impact player, either works for me, but let's get Tana back on the wing!

As an aside it's interesting to see that the Wallabies seem to be infatuated with getting as many stars in their backline as they can (much like the 1999 RWC All Blacks). From 15 through to 12 (Latham, Sailor, Mortlock, Burke and Herbert) arguably only Latham and Sailor are playing in their best positions. They haven't been that convincing so far, long may it continue!

by jules

Let us know what you think!

getting the Predator back out on the wing sounds good to me, I just hope that the selectors don't get suckered into that selection approach and try to squeeze Cullen and Macdonald into the starting lineup together, those guys just aren't Prop material!
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(Although it could have just been jules on the Reload button doing some serious ego padding!)