Gerry Thornley: Sonny Bill Williams bristles as ghosts of 2005 resurface

The Lions have played just one fixture in New Zealand but temperature is starting to rise

Tana Umaga’s Blues take on the Lions at Eden Park on Wednesday. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty

Tana Umaga’s Blues take on the Lions at Eden Park on Wednesday. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty

 

It hasn’t taken long for the bad blood from the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand to resurface. Granted, this is as much a matter of circumstances as anything else, given Tana Umaga faced the media, both Kiwi and travelling, yesterday in the suburbs of Auckland to announce the Blues’ team to face the Lions in Eden Park tomorrow in his capacity as their head coach.

Umaga, of course, in tandem with Keven Mealamu, committed the fateful two-pronged spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll in the opening exchanges of the first Test which badly damaged the Lions captain’s shoulder and ended his tour.

From that night onwards and over the next few days, the Lions spin machine, headed by Alastair Campbell and Clive Woodward, went into overdrive. Harangued and feeling cornered, even by a critical New Zealand Herald editorial, the entire All Blacks squad ringed the room at a tense press conference headed by then coach Graham Henry and Umaga, their captain. Cue the second Test in Wellington, and the All Blacks were in an even more vengeful mood.

A dozen years on and yesterday the Herald’s writer Gregor Paul pre-empted yesterday’s press conference. Under a piece with the headline ‘Why Umaga should not face O’Driscoll inquisition,’ he suggested that in exonerating Umaga it was the citing commissioner for the first Test, William Venter, who made a serious misjudgement.

Time to move on

It is time, he added, to move on, and he probably had a fair point there. Nonetheless it was also valid to ask Umaga questions about 2005, although when he was first asked to look back to that Lions tour, with mutterings from the playing squad who were sitting at the back of the room, it was actually in the context of what playing against the Lions 12 years ago meant to him.

So pleasantly surprised was he by the nature of that question that Umaga began his answer by thanking his interloper. He gave a straight bat to one more question about 2005, saying this was not about then and if people weren’t inclined to move on they never will be. At the end of his press conference, he was asked once more for his recollections of that Lions series, whereupon Sonny Bill Williams, sitting alongside his coach, lent forward and said: “Mate, let’s just leave it alone, mate.”

Umaga added with a wry smile: “That’ll be a no.”

Then Williams muttered: “12 years!”

And that was it really. Three questions out of 12 which were put to Tana Umaga in an 18 minute media briefing alongside hooker James Parsons and SBW.

Yet one New Zealand website was moved to declare: “SBW shuts down unrelenting British media hounding Tana Umaga over 2005 Lions Tour tackle on Brian O’Driscoll.”

Things are starting to become a little feisty alright.

Couldn’t cope mentally

“Early evidence bad for tourists” Paul wrote in another piece, suggesting that more than half the country would already have drawn a line through the Lions after their opening 13-7 win over a Provincial Barbarians XV. The Lions, he said, couldn’t cope mentally with the pace of the game.

Meanwhile, also in the Herald under the headline “Gatland the wrong man for the job,” Crhis Rattue was so damning of the Lions opening performance that he said it was as if the Lions had watched the Crusaders and Highlanders “smacking the heck out of each other” earlier that day “and decided to run up the white flag.”

In the same pages, former All Blacks’ scrum-half Justin Marshall assuredly struck a more balanced and, hopefully, more accurate note when suggesting that the Lions were holding plenty back so as not to unveil too much of their plans for the Test series to the watching All Blacks’ management and coaching staff.

While there must also be some truth in that, perhaps the biggest factor in an undistinguished opening night was, assuredly, the less than ideal and somewhat restricted preparation time for that Lions selection. This simply also reflects how the Lions differ from an individual international team who, by comparison, have greater control over their players.

Also, by their very nature, the Lions are far more behoven to their commercial partners and also their off-field obligations in making visits to schools, hospitals and so forth. The magnitude of their off-field status was underlined by the sheer scale of last Sunday’s powerful powhirri at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which was fronted by 400 Maori warriors and attended by 3,000 fans.

Build bridges

Mindful of the need to build bridges from that 2005 tour, the Lions have at least been well nigh perfect off the pitch, if not always the most punctual for their scheduled media events.

As for the criticism from Steve Hansen that an advance party of 30 players and coaches could have come down to New Zealand a week earlier than they did, such a vast change of plans would have been a logistical nightmare. Besides, it would have added a degree of division to such a huge travelling party of players and management.

On Sunday, team manager John Spencer expressed the hope, and belief, that on foot of a new global calendar being agreed upon, this will be the last time when the Lions won’t have a full week’s preparations in between the end of the domestic season and the first week of their tour.

But for this tour, the Lions have had little option but to deal with the hand they have been dealt. They have not exactly hit the ground running, but as Sam Warburton has said, who remembers the opening night in Hong Kong four years ago now? Or, indeed, the scratchy opening win against a Royal XV eight years ago?

But, the nature of Saturday’s opening win has probably upped the ante in Eden Park tomorrow.

gthornley@rishtimes.com

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