Above: Thomas Umaga-Jensen threads his way through the forwards in Sunday's 60-14 win over Canterbury. Photo by Dave Brownlie Photography.
“I was real nervous about it. I thought it would be a close game or they might thrash us. They have some big names and growing up I have watched them beat everyone,” Thomas Umaga-Jensen shares of his anxiety before Wellington’s NPC clash against Canterbury on Sunday.
In only his second game for the Wellington Lions, Thomas was a key player in the record 60-14 thrashing of the Premiership champions.
“It was surreal and fun. Everything clicked. It was real exciting to see our hard work paying off,” Thomas enthuses.
Thomas is based in Dunedin most of the year. He trains with the Highlanders during Super Rugby while studying geography and education at the University of Otago. Upon return to the capital he expected little game time, but a serious injury to Wes Goosen has earned a rapid promotion.
“My job is to play like Wes. I try, but he is a big hole to fill,” Thomas responds when asked to explain his role replacing the more senior starter.
Four years ago and a softly spoken Polynesian lad is addressing a crowd of Scots College boys about how much he loves Wainuiomata. This isn’t exactly a common topic at the private school’s annual senior oratory contest.
For Thomas Umaga-Jensen it proved to be a logical and winning subject.
“I wasn’t sure what to talk about so I went to my teacher Ms Hall and asked her what to do. She said I should talk about something important to me. Wainui is pretty foreign to most Scots boys so I wanted to emphasise it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can be successful from anywhere. I tried to make it funny and was lucky to win,” Thomas reflects.
The message of humility and diligence extended to rugby for Thomas at Strathmore.
Alongside his twin brother Peter, he played 48 games for the First XV and scored 32 tries.
Thomas played both loose forward and midfield with equal effectiveness. In 2014 he was named Man of the Match in both the Premier I Wellington and National Top Four finals which Scots won against St. Patrick’s College, Silverstream and Hamilton Boys’ High School respectively.
At the latter fixture in Rotorua your humble correspondent was reporting the match when he was approached by two Hamilton students shortly after full time asking if he could arrange a selfie with Thomas. Troy Mitchell and Jacob Cowley (son of former All Black Regan King) were too awestruck to ask themselves. In reporting possibly 400 high school matches in the last eight years, this is a respect for an opponent and a request I haven’t had before or since.
In 2015 life got even better for Thomas. He was selected in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team that completed an unbeaten tour of Australia, but self-checked humility would soon become necessary.
“I tore a hip flexor in the New Zealand Schools training camp and battled through the tour. When I went to Otago and had my first training for University I felt the same pain in a tackle and was injured for three months,” Thomas explains.
Thomas has been restricted to six games in two years for the Varsity Premiers, struggling to shrug the injury.
Earlier this year he was a member of the New Zealand Under-20’s who won the World Cup in Georgia, but for the first time at the age group level he wasn’t the preferred starter.
“I was disappointed not to start, but the selectors went with who they thought were the best players. I didn’t do any of the camps before the tournament so I could understand why I wasn’t the first pick. I was privileged to start the Scottish and Irish games. I am just happy we won,” Thomas asserts.
Wellington travels to Hamilton this Saturday to tackle Waikato in the NPC. If Thomas continues to echo the message of the ‘I love Wainuiomata’ address, it’s likely there will be many more selfies with admiring teenagers.