As a result of his selection at inside centre for the Chiefs’ encounter with the Brumbies this Saturday, Tana Umaga will be able to tell his grandchildren he was the oldest man to ever play Super Rugby. In fact, several of his grandchildren will likely be in the crowd.
The soon-to-be 38-year-old is defying his years and commonsense to start for the Chiefs, in place of the injured Richard Kahui. Incredibly, Umaga, who will also set a seemingly unbreakable record as the oldest sportsman to still be sporting dreadlocks, will mark Robbie Coleman, who was not yet six months old when Tana signed his first professional football contract.
It begs the question, why?
In recent years we’ve seen several comebacks which can only be described as failures and in some cases, completely heartbreaking.
Any Australian who watched Justin Harrison “run” out for the Brumbies last season would know the heartbreak I speak of. More of a set-piece consultant than a fire-breathing tower of mongrel, he did little more than scream out some numbers at the line-out for 30 minutes a match.
Worse still was Carlos Spencer.
Carlos was truly a magnificent player who paved the way for the modern 10. Ask Q. Cooper, Toomua or Beale, who they idolised growing up and you’ll get the answer “Spencer” without a second thought.
For the Lions, Carlos was emphatically terrible. Like the biggest of fish in the smallest of ponds, he floundered, seemingly gasping for air. With each match he turned out for them, he got worse.
For me, his comeback didn’t just tarnish his career. It fractured his aura.
So, why do it? Well for Harrison it was about redemption after drug allegations. For Spencer, I suspect it might have something to do with the SA Rugby record contract he was offered. Andrew Walker was helping the Reds out. Geoff Huegill was fat. Thorpey is broke. No one has uttered the words “Michael Klim” in five years.
Tana has nothing to gain. He is a hero to millions. No one cares that he went to Toulon to secure his family’s future and everyone loves him as much as they did the day he was handed the All Black captaincy. He is a great.
At best, his comeback can only cement how the rugby community already feel about him. More likely though, we will see vulnerabilities which were previously unseen.
As much as I wish him every success, sadly, comebacks tend to make mortals of Gods.
It’s a young man’s game. It’s fast. It’s physical. It’s cut-throat.
It’s not tiddlywinks.