Twenty five years after joining Halifax, Mike Umaga still calls Yorkshire home

DID you hear the one about two Samoans who came over to play rugby league for Halifax 25 years ago, became cult heroes and are now both watching their relatives line up in England rugby union’s ranks?

Halifax's Mike Umaga brushes aside the Leeds defence to score.

It does sound like the start of a bad joke but it is, in fact, the beginning of a very true tale.

The robust Mike Umaga and Fereti “Freddie” Tuilagi were the Samoans in question, a thrilling pair of exciting backs who combined pace and power to devastating effect at Thrum Hall at the advent of Super League.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Fast forward to now and Umaga’s 21-year-old son Jacob – who was born in Halifax and spent time on loan at Yorkshire Carnegie last season – is thriving with Wasps and was in Eddie Jones’s England Six Nations training squad before both competitions were curtailed by the coronavirus.

Halifax player Fereti Tuilagi. Pic: Graham Lynch.

Now aged 48, Tuilagi, of course, is the oldest of six brothers who all played professional rugby, each representing Samoa apart from the youngest – Manu, the brilliant 28-year-old England centre.

Mike Umaga, whose younger brother Tana won a record 74 caps for the All Blacks, told The Yorkshire Post: “I haven’t caught up with Freddie about it all yet.

“He did send me a message when Jacob got selected. Jacob’s been in contact with Manu for a number of years, though, as they were at (Leicester) Tigers together and then obviously have played against each other before now training with each other at England.

“As for him maybe playing for England, it’s a funny one because – as a Kiwi Samoan – one of the first jerseys you put on is a black one! It’s all you talk about.

Manu Tuilagi and Jacob Umaga of England warm up. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“A few years ago Jacob did talk about maybe going back to New Zealand and maybe plumping for Samoa. But he’s in the England system and can see where that goes. He can always go back if he wants to but it’s exciting times.

“I’d be very proud. I am very proud at what he’s doing and what he’s done so far.

“He’s half-English remember and he was born in England; if he got to represent his country I’d be really excited.

“He was contacted by Eddie Jones the other day about his training so he’s still in his mind.”

Umaga was 29 when he arrived in Yorkshire to play for Halifax and had already played in two Rugby World Cups for Western Samoa, as it was then known.

During two seasons with the club he went on to excel, whether at stand-off or full-back, but admitted: “It was quite daunting for me initially as I’d never played rugby league. A lot of my friends in New Zealand, though, were rugby league players.

“So they spent time with me beforehand, training and coaching me, ready for when I came over here. It was the summer of ’95 and meant to be one of the best summers Britain had had for a while so that eased the transition as well.

“I got off the plane and the weather was really good, the group at Halifax were great and the coach at the time – Steve Simms – made me feel really welcome as did all the other boys.

“It was exciting; it was something new, I loved the new challenge and then John Schuster and his family was already here, too.”

Samoa-born Schuster was a famous former All Black centre who switched codes with Australian club Newcastle Knights in 1990 before moving across to the UK with ’Fax.

Umaga, who now works as director of rugby at Bishop Burton College in Beverley and coaches Hull Ionians, added: “I turned up in the August and I think Freddie turned up a couple of months later.

“He was my room-mate on a couple of tours with Samoa so I knew him really well. We’d been at the World Cup together.

“It was all done through Schuey. He was the main contact in terms of us Kiwis coming over. He knew Freddie from back home as well.

“I’d played rugby union with Schuey as well at Wellington so he was the go-to guy.”

There was a big union influence in the Halifax backline at the time; John Bentley was on the wing, two years before he returned to the 15-man code and produced those famous exploits with the British Lions, while full-back Asa Amone had represented Tonga in the 1995 World Cup.

But what of the manner in which they played? Umaga became the first player to score five tries in a Super League game during the 74-14 destruction of Workington Town in 1996.

Dave Hadfield – the doyen of rugby league writers – penned the following in The Independent: “Umaga spearheaded a display of extravagant running and handling in a match that frequently resembled a summer sevens event in some exotic location rather than the traditional slog at Thrum Hall.”

Tuilagi was on the other wing to Bentley while a 17-year-old Chris Chester came off the bench in a game that also saw future England coach Tony Smith play for the vanquished Cumbrians.

On those days with Tuilagi at ’Fax, Umaga insisted: “It was really easy because no one really expected anything from us other than doing our job and to the best of our abilities.

“We’d come from union and I don’t think people expected much. But, one, we just wanted to get the ball in our hands, two, run it as hard as we could and, three, hit anything that moved.

“That fitted in really well with how that group played and they were all really welcoming.”

Tuilagi scored 26 tries in 57 Super League appearances for ’Fax before moving on to St Helens where – having converted to second-row – he won Grand Finals in 1999 and 2000.

He would then join Leicester Tigers. With union having turned professional, Umaga made the shorter journey to Rotherham where he became player-coach in 1997, earning legendary status there, too.

He scored 38 tries in 133 games for the South Yorkshire club, helping them reach the Premiership during the most successful period in their history before joining Coventry in 2004.

“I’d never have guessed I’d still be here now,” laughed Umaga.

“I had a three-year contract with ’Fax and talking to my dad I just said ‘look, I’m just going to go over for three years’.

“Twenty five years later I’m still here! I was quite fortunate.

“Not many people know but my wife Michelle – she’s from Batley – was one of the first people I met when I went to the club. They were playing touch rugby and Tony Anderson introduced us on the very first day after I got off the plane.

“Twenty five years later we’ve three kids, two born in Fax, the other in the Midlands, but it’s been a pretty good 25 years actually. A lot of people from the Fax are still in contact like Martin Moana. Graeme Hallas has just been in touch this week about a reunion in October.”

And there’s already another reunion; Jacob, equally at home at fly-half or full-back like his dad, is back residing with the family due to Covid-19.

His dad said: “It’s great; we’re able to get out in the sun and train together. The only bad thing is he’s eating me out of house and home!”