Sporting Controversies: The tackle that ended Brian O’Driscoll’s 2005 Lions tour
Umaga and Mealamu got away with it but the incident tarnished All Blacks’ brilliant series win
Brian O’Driscoll is attended to by physio Phil Pask and Dr James Robson as he lies injured on the ground. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
On June 25th, 2005 Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll was the victim of a spear tackle 41 seconds into the first Test against New Zealand in the Jade stadium in Christchurch. The Irish centre suffered a tour ending shoulder injury that required surgery while the perpetrators, All Blacks captain Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu, received no official censure, at the time or subsequently, for their actions.
The incident’s ripple effect lapped at interviews for more than a decade, initially polluted by rancour. It was a topic that niggled at and relentlessly pursued O’Driscoll and Umaga through the remainder of their playing careers and beyond.
Mealamu’s reaction, at least for public consumption, has been consistent in offering a verbal shrug on the sporadic occasions in the last 15 years that he’s been asked to revisit the tackle; more concerned with how it distracted and detracted from New Zealand’s stunning performances in a 3-0 series blackwash.
Even up to three years ago, when confronted with the incident and its legacy in an interview in New Zealand he admitted: “It’s not something you ever want to do, take the focus away from the team and the performance. It’s something I still feel stink about.
“We were a tight team to begin with. You can’t imagine how much that drove us. What we wanted to do was to bring it back to rugby and to let our rugby do the talking.”
They managed that in emphatic fashion but outside of New Zealand, the 2005 series against the Lions will always be punctuated with an asterisk; unfairly so in some respects because from a rugby perspective in those three Tests New Zealand eviscerated the opponents with a breathtaking brand of rugby.
One player alone wouldn’t have diverted the tourists from their fate, even someone of O’Driscoll’s supreme talent but there is little doubt that the manner of his injury tarnished the New Zealand triumph.
‘Speargate’ briefly deflected from the Lions fundamental flaws and failings, some individual, the majority collective that were manifold before and during the tour: selection, performance, coaching, organisation and man management, impenetrable barriers that undermined playing aspirations and had an ancillary knock-on effect, the slow disintegration of morale.
Lions coach Clive Woodward came under external fire – in contrast reading players’ autobiographies, very few are overtly critical – almost from the get-go, from the size of the squad (45 players), to a coaching and backroom team that numbered 28 people and included former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, a Marmite-like figure within the group and externally, to advise on PR and a heavy reliance on England’s 2003 World Cup-winning team, several of whom were struggling with form, injury or both, a fact borne out on the pitch.
Wales, the Grand Slam champions that year, should have enjoyed a greater representation. There were other more left-field oddities including the decision to commission a Lions anthem, The Power of One. Welsh secondrow Alun Wyn Jones said he would have preferred to sing The Power of Love. While there is no doubting Woodward’s attention to detail or his ability to think laterally to eke out incremental improvements, there was sterility and distance that weren’t going to accelerate and solidify the bonding process required for a scratch team, drawn from four countries.
Players had individual rooms rather than pairing up, while the squad was divided into Test and midweek teams, players and coaches that travelled and prepared separately for the most part. Changing the lineout calls a few days ahead of the first Test because of a suspicion that they had been compromised and were known to the New Zealanders underlined an unravelling that by the final Test was a threadbare tour.
An honourable exception was the Midweek Massive as the ‘dirt-trackers’ were known who thrived under Ian McGeechan’s coaching baton. They won all their matches – the Test team played a midweek game against the New Zealand Maori – and uniformly enjoyed the process. Injuries to Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill denied the Lions the leadership required in rugby’s most inhospitable climate.
There is an argument that both captains, O’Driscoll and Umaga, were let down by officialdom, the New Zealander in a more obtuse manner. If he had been sent off at the time, the matter would have been dealt with and based on the evidence of the tour at that point and what followed subsequently it wouldn’t have altered the outcome of the series. Instead the All Blacks would have been showered with the superlatives their rugby merited.
O’Driscoll sustained the physical damage but Umaga’s reputation and integrity were initially impugned by his immediate reaction, his subsequent lack of public remorse and also quite simply because he escaped scot-free, a Pyrrhic victory in many respects. He brazened it out and exacted a toll.
The spear tackle unequivocally merited a red card or cards, something that French referee Joel Jutge would confirm many years later in an interview. He didn’t see the incident because he was following play, the ball already in Dan Carter’s hands following a ruck as Mealamu and Umaga lifted a leg each and inverted the Irishman, his descent to the turf broken principally by his shoulder.
It could just as easily have been his neck but O’Driscoll had the presence of mind to stick out an arm. Touch judge Andrew Cole was metres away from the incident and both the Irishman and Lions wing Gareth Thomas claim that he shouted at the All Blacks pair to put their intended victim down, something he denied according to O’Driscoll’s book A Year in the Centre when tracked down by a New Zealand television crew back in Australia.
Jutge admitted: “It should have at least been one red card. Maybe Mealamu, maybe Umaga, maybe both: we didn’t see it and so we didn’t sanction it. I was really upset with myself.
“I realised at the post-match reception when someone said we missed an awful spear tackle. When I reviewed it back at the hotel, I was very unhappy. The officials should have worked better together.
“I spoke with Brian O’Driscoll seven weeks later and told him that I was sorry. I said, ‘hey, I’m sad for you, but I didn’t see it’. That’s the life of a referee. Sometimes you don’t see everything. I’m sure he was a little bit angry at me, which I understand, but he didn’t say a thing because he’s a gentleman.”
If O’Driscoll was poorly served by the match officials then South African citing commissioner Willem Venter didn’t offer any respite, unmoved by the case presented by Lions barrister Richard Smith that night in Christchurch.
Woodward and Campbell went on the offensive at a press conference the following day, showing stills and video footage of the incident. O’Driscoll issued a statement at the request of the media. The All Blacks, players and management, protested innocence.
Campbell said when asked about Speargate in an interview in 2017: “Clive was adamant, and so were most of the players, and so were the coaches, and so was the lawyer that that was a dangerous, illegal piece of play and they had to push it as hard as they could to get a sense of justice for it.
“Now, I think this is where, if I hadn’t been involved, perhaps it would have blown over more quickly, because the focus went to me. I don’t mind that. I think, for most fair minded people, [it was] a pretty shocking thing. I think Clive was absolutely right to push it as hard as he did.”
A New Zealand Herald newspaper opinion piece at the time was critical in tone pointing out that “it was at the very least a reckless and dangerous act,” and upbraiding Umaga for a lack of sportsmanship and the common courtesy of checking on O’Driscoll’s condition.
Former All Black rugby icon Colin Meads was also critical of Umaga’s behaviour, suggesting that he should have picked up the phone, marched over to the Lions team hotel with a crate of beer under his arm, and frosty reception or not, talked things out with O’Driscoll.
What irked the Lions captain most, having accepted that there was no premeditation in the actions of the two All Blacks, was their lack of contrition or an apology. It was like a pebble in a shoe.
O’Driscoll made his feelings known in the aforementioned book, while Umaga was unsparing in his language in the All Black captain’s 2007 autobiography Close Up.
He wrote: “My first thought was ‘jeez, don’t be a sook; there’s no use crying about it, man. It’s over.’ But it just snowballed and O’Driscoll kept going on about the fact that I hadn’t rung him to say sorry. 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. 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.”
That is until 2009 when a chance encounter in Nice saw the start of a thawing process. O’Driscoll recalled: “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.” Well not quite as it periodically inveigled its way into interviews.
When the two met for a commercial sponsorship gig in Dublin a couple of years ago, they made one final plea. O’Driscoll said: “It was one of those things. Was it unfortunate? Yeah. Should you have dealt with it slightly differently? Yeah. You’ve got to move on. You can’t bring those sorts of things through life.
“To have a get together and chew the fat and properly get to talk and not feel scared by it is refreshing and, I hope, it’s dead after this,” he laughed. Umaga pitched a similar tone. “I think that was the key thing for us, just to have time together. We can’t change the past. It is something that whenever I do something people ask about and it is well settled between us. Hopefully this will really put it behind people and we will make peace with it now.”
World Rugby’s decision to change the law in the wake of Speargate is perhaps the most persuasive argument in the debate. Those who write history don’t get to airbrush it. Their views are known and documented and they don’t want to add to the tome but when the 2005 Lions tour is discussed, O’Driscoll and Umaga will always remain front and centre.