In the first minute of the first test of the 2005 series against the All Blacks, British Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll was tipped on his head and suffered a dislocated shoulder. It was the beginning of an acrimonious and prolonged falling out with All Blacks captain Tana Umaga. GREGOR PAUL reports.
In the beginning it was all smiles and mutual respect. Tana Umaga and Brian O’Driscoll, the respective captains of the All Blacks and British Lions, appeared to genuinely like each other when they met in Auckland a few days after the tourists arrived in 2005. They were thrust together for a media breakfast event and something that could potentially have been awkward, turned out to be a lot of fun.
Umaga and O’Driscoll hit it off. They fielded questions together. They joked, they laughed and they made everyone forget that in a few weeks they were going to be happy to tear each others’ heads off.
The Lions were in New Zealand for an old school tour and O’Driscoll and Umaga were honouring old school principles – respectful and good humoured, their interaction that morning was a reminder that rugby’s greatest asset is the bonds of friendships that are created.
Five weeks later and that cordial morning was long forgotten. After the first test, Umaga and O’Driscoll were sworn rivals. They were no longer friends. They were no longer mutually respectful of one another and their relationship was defined by bitterness and deep resentment.
A boundary had been crossed – things turned personal and their feud would simmer for four long years before it came to some sort of amicable resolution. It was an astonishing turn of events, which all began in the opening minute of the first test in Christchurch.
It wasn't apparent at the time why O'Driscoll was lying prone on the Jade Stadium turf, in absolute agony, after just 53 seconds.
He was in pain and stayed down for more than three minutes before he was stretchered off. It was obviously a huge moment in the series – the Lions losing their captain to what was clearly a serious injury in just the first minute of the first test.
But such is the nature of these things, that the inquiry as to what had happened, would have to wait until after the game.
This was before TMOs had the power to intervene if they saw foul play. It would be up to the citing commissioner to determine after the match whether anything untoward had happened.
A full 80 minutes later, the Lions had been destroyed by a comprehensive All Blacks performance. It hadn't even been close and the All Blacks came off the field elated. But there were also murmurings by then that there was trouble looming – that footage had been found that showed what had happened to O'Driscoll. And it didn't look good for Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu. A new camera angle showed that Umaga and Mealamu had grabbed a leg each, lifted then driven O'Driscoll head first into the ground. Never mind whether th Lions captain was a elgitimate cleanout target given his proximity to the ball or breakdown, the technique used to shift him was questionable. Highly questionable. It was hard to see how it could be deemed legal and it was no surprise when shortly after the final whisetle, confirmation came that Umaga and Mealamu had been cited.
What did surprise was that at about 11pm that night, an announcement was made that citing commissioner. South African Willem Venter, had exonerated the Kiwi pair – said there was nothing it, but had recommended that Lions lock be punished for biting the finger of Mealamu at the bottom of a ruck.
The Lions were outraged. They were incensed. They could hardly believe it. Their captain had been taken out in what they thought was a delibertae and malicious act of foul play that could have ended more badly than a dislocated shoulder...and nothing, zip. No punishment. Barely even a cursory look at the legality of it all and they had to do what...accept their captain was taken out like that?
That was the last thing they were going to do. By midnight, the Lions had called a press conference at their Christchurch hotel. This was unprecedented – a sign of how angry they were. The matter wasn't finished they said that night. They were going to appeal. They were going to make a huge fuss. They were never, ever, going to accept what happened was legal.
A day later they ahd decamped to Wellington, but their energy for the cause was hardly diminished. At 6pm that evening they invited the media for more of the same – these impassioned, emotive speeches that were combined with repeat playing of the video footage and questions, always questions about how this had been allowed to go without sanction.
The Lions had taken former PrimeMinister Tony Blair's spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, with them, and he was in his element. He had Umaga portrayed as some kind of Darth Vader figure and tried to suggest – albeit with help from all of the Lions management and senior players – that this sort of off the ball violence was endemic in New Zealand and a speciality of the All Blacks captain.
“It was a cheap shot which has put me out. They could have quite easily broken my neck,” said O'Driscoll. “I tackled one of their players and then a ruck formed. I was pushing against Jerry Collins and two guys came in, they had a leg each, I got turned around in the air and speared into the ground.
“I was turned upside down, in the air and speared into the ground. I knew straight away that it was serious. I have worked so hard for so long to get to this and to have it taken away by such a cheap shot leaves a really nasty feeling.
“It is very hard to describe any emotion at the moment. I just cannot put it into words. I am angry because it was such a cheap shot. I had this searing pain that just wouldn't go away, I have never had a dislocated shoulder before so I did not know that is what it was, but I knew instantly that I was out of the game.”
The lions and the British media also tried to make mileage out of the fact that Umaga had not attended to O'Driscoll on the field – gone over to see that he was okay. Then they made a huge deal about the fact Umaga hadn't made contact with O'Driscoll after the game to offer an apology.
By the middle of the week leading into the second test, the animosity between the two camps and the two captains in particular was fierce. The All Blacks had avoided commenting on the issue and had kept Umaga out of the public eye. But by the Thursday, he had to front. The issue had to be met head on and a press conference at the New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters was packed to the brim.
Out came Umaga to meet the assembled throng and behind him, the entire All Blacks squad. To a man, they stood behind the table at which their skipper sat and answered questions. The Brits fired away, Umaga batted back but there was no defining moment.
“It was disappointing what happened. But I play hard. That's just the way I am. It was an unfortunate incident, but these things happen,” said Umaga.
Umaga would only say he was sorry for what happened to O'Driscoll but took no responsibility for it. He was innocent, after all, of any wrongdoing. The Brits kept pressing, but he kept repeating, giving nothing they could use against him. “I believe we try to raise standards,” he said of the All Blacks.
“I understand we are role models for a lot of people in this country, and when that is hit, that's the most disappointing thing for me. It would take too long to explain [the tackle]. It's Wednesday. We've got two days to prepare for a game. I could explain it, but everybody has already made their decisions [made their mind up].”
Eventually, after the same question was asked 37 different ways, the conference ended with Umaga still an evil beast in the eyes of the Lions.
Certainly the All Blacks and Umaga in particular had seen and heard all they could stomach of the incident by the Thursday. The All Blacks effectively shut up shop at that point and decided that the best way to make the whole business to go away was to blow the Lions off the park in Wellington.
They wanted to give the Lions something proper to bleat about which is exactly what happened. The All Blacks were devastating and the second test passed without controversy and all anyone could talk about afterwards was the brilliance of Daniel Carter.
At the end of 2005, the All Blacks toured the UK and Ireland. It was to be Umaga's last trip as skipper for he had decided before the team left that he was going to retire. The incident with O'Driscoll had drained him – made him feel that while he could keep going for a few years physically, he didn't have the mental desire to push on.
He was dreading going to Ireland – knowing the whole O'Driscoll incident would be brought up ad neauseum again and what would happen if the two played against each other?
The All Blacks coaches had much the same thought and had already decided they would use the Irish test to give vice-captain Richie McCaw another chance to lead the team. Umaga would watch on from the stands and avoid being a target to the Irish players and fans. As it happened O'Driscoll wasn't able to play either – different injury – and while it was tense during the week, the All Blacks managed to keep the sideshow to a minimum. It felt then, with Umaga retiring, that their rivalry had reached a natural end. But that was until Uamaga released his autobiography in 2007 and revisited the incident in detail.
“At first, the kerfuffle didn't really bother me. It was a case of, oh well that's the way it is. But it just snowballed and O'Driscoll kept going on about the fact that I hadn't rung him to say sorry. I'd actually tried to get hold of him on the Monday via the Lions' media liaison person but I never heard back. By this stage we were in Wellington and it just kept cranking up and I was getting a bit angry. I finally obtained his number and got hold of him but it wasn't a warm exchange.
“He was still angry that I hadn't gone over to see how he was and once he'd got that off his chest, he accused me of being involved in a lot of off-the-ball incidents. The Lions hadn't been impressed with the way I'd played, he said, and I had to watch it. I said, 'Don't talk to me about off-the-ball incidents, talk to your own players. Look at Grewcock. He's a meathead'.
“'Yeah, he is a meathead,' he said. 'You can't change that but we're better than that. We shouldn't play like those guys. We thought you were a gentleman'.
“While he went on along those lines, I was thinking to myself, hang on, this is a game I take seriously. And I did: I aimed to let an opponent know I was out there and get into his mind so that next time he'd have a look to see if I was coming. I'd body-check him on the way through or if I came up quickly and the pass didn't go to him, I'd still give him a little reminder that I was around so he knew that if he didn't have his wits about him, he could get hit, and hit hard. I had no qualms about it; that was how I played. That's the gamesmanship of rugby. Players sledge. I sledged a bit and did so in that game.
“I was always trying to get an edge and in that respect I was no different to a lot of players. But when he started talking about off-the-ball stuff and me not being a gentleman I thought, oh, you're reaching now. I never went out to commit foul play: I didn't punch guys on the ground or stomp on them. So I said, 'Oh well, mate, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I'm sorry for what happened to you but there was no intent in it; it was one of those unfortunate things that happen in rugby'. He said, 'Yeah, but you could've helped it'. 'Okay, mate,' I said, 'all the best'. And that was where we left it.”
A relationship that had begun so promisngly had seemingly ended badly. Umaga and O'Driscoll were surely destined to never make up. Too much had happened between them. Too many bad things had been said and in O'Driscoll's mind – and with some justifcation – a bad thing had happened which remained unatoned for.
Almost randomly, in July 2009, they were able to bury the hatchet. Umaga had moved to France where he was coaching Toulon and as fate would have it, Leinster, O'Driscoll's club, had a preseason tour along the coast in Nice.
“He [Umaga] happened to be in the ground seeing someone and I was on the side of the pitch at the time,” O’Driscoll would reveal. “I thought, 'Maybe, this is the time when you need to be the bigger man and go over and shake hands'.
“I went over to him and did just that. We chatted for a while and that was the end of it. We didn’t talk about it [the incident]. To have done so would have been to re-hash the whole thing. It was very much swept under the carpet.”
In the first minute of the first test of the 2005 series, Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu grabed a leg each of British Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll at a ruck. They lifted him and then had hmi mostly upside down in the air when they appeared to drive him downwards before dropping him.
The force was enough to dislocate O'Driscoll's shoulder and rule him out of the remainder of the series.
What they All Said
“I repeat there is no way the All Blacks go out to maim the opposition, they never have done so far as my memory is concerned, they don't do it now, it is not part of team policy. But to be considered a deliberate act is ridiculous and that I guess is a bit irritating for the All Black team and the captain of the team.”- All Blacks coach Graham Henry
“He [citing commisioner Venter) said the tapes are inconclusive. I'm a professional coach and I think the tapes are conclusive because I saw them. I'm very disappointed they're not even going to bring the players in and talk about it. They can still be acquitted after a hearing, but just to say nothing has happened is just an amazing decision to make within 12 hours.” - British Lions coach Clive Woodward
“It wasn't just a case of dropping me, I felt there was force in it. There were times after the game when I found it hard to keep the tears back. I was feeling a lot of emotions and even now it's difficult to talk about it. I think it'll sink in in the next few days when I realise that I got to captain the Lions in a test match for just over a minute. I suppose I should be thankful that it was a minute and not no time at all but it certainly is disappointing for me and my family that came over yesterday.” - British Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll
“My first thought was geez, don't be a sook; there's no use crying about it, man, it's over. On the other hand I could understand how bitterly disappointed O'Driscoll was. He would have been just like me: buzzing with anticipation, really up for it, and desperate to make a point on the field.” - All Blacks captain Tana Umaga