Sunday 23 July 2017

Brian O'Driscoll knows spear tackle wasn't intentional, claims ex-All Black Marshall

Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu get to grips with Brian O’Driscoll in what became known as the most infamous spear tackle in rugby history during the opening Test in 2005, ending the then Lions captain’s participation. Photo: AP
Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu get to grips with Brian O’Driscoll in what became known as the most infamous spear tackle in rugby history during the opening Test in 2005, ending the then Lions captain’s participation. Photo: AP

Tom Cary

It was, and remains, one of the most controversial moments in Lions history; depositing a taste so sour in the mouths of its protagonists that 12 years on they refuse point-blank to discuss it.

The so-called 'spear tackle' that ended Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll's 2005 campaign within minutes of the start of the first Test in Christchurch - the victim of a dislocated shoulder - cast a shadow so long that, even now, it leaves both sides of the divide angry and frustrated.

Justin Marshall - who was, incidentally, the only New Zealander to inquire after O'Driscoll's health as he departed the field in a motorised cart - is no exception.

"It was a shame," concedes the great All Black scrum-half of that fateful day. "It put a bit of ill-feeling into the equation."

That is putting it mildly. With neither the New Zealand captain Tana Umaga nor hooker Keven Mealamu - the other All Black involved in the tackle - punished for it at the time, and with the citing commissioner inexplicably turning a blind eye, the controversy developed a life of its own, breeding simmering resentment as Clive Woodward's ill-fated tour stumbled on towards its inevitable conclusion.

The Lions felt understandably sore that they had lost their captain - and arguably their best player - in such dramatic fashion. And they were doubly nonplussed by the refusal of the authorities to take any retrospective action. O'Driscoll himself was angry and volubly so. The All Blacks, meanwhile, refused to concede any moral high ground; dismissing the controversy as a 'rugby incident' and taking umbrage at the suggestion that their players would purposefully have set out to hurt anyone.

The vast majority of New Zealanders felt - perhaps rightly - that the Lions management were simply seeking to take the focus away from their own poor form, dismissing the travelling party - and particularly the reviled Woodward and his press attaché, former No 10 spin doctor Alastair Campbell - as 'whingeing' Poms (England players made up half the 2005 squad).

Marshall does not quite go that far. But he certainly thinks more was made of the incident than was necessary; that Woodward and Campbell spun it out of all proportion.

"First of all, I think it was a real crime for the series that a quality player like Brian was ruled out of it," he says. "To have a player like him no longer part of the tour was a bit of a dampener on the quality of rugby player suddenly missing from the Test matches.

"That in itself was a shame.

But without a shadow of a doubt I can hand on heart say he was not a target for us. When they named (Dwayne) Peel, Stephen Jones and Jonny Wilkinson at 9-10-12 and we knew bad weather was coming, the channels we were going down were theirs. We weren't thinking about Brian's channel and going wide, we weren't considering him to be a threat.

Marshall adds: "I'm not condoning it. I'm not saying it was fine. It should have been dealt with better discipline-wise. But it was nasty that these two players, two very clean players, got targeted with doing it intentionally, which was just a load of crap. It was just an awkward incident. Awkward incidents like that happen all the time on a rugby field. It is a game of centimetres."

Whether intentional or not, the upshot - according to Marshall - was that it galvanised the All Blacks. "They (the accusations that it was intentional) were below the belt," he says. "That is really what stirred us up more than anything. The Lions, from there on in, their media propaganda was way out of line. All they were really doing was fuelling our motivation because that was certainly not the way we played the game."

The Lions, of course, ended up losing the series 3-0, going down 38-19 in the third Test in Auckland to experience a first whitewash in 22 years. But that wasn't the end of it. Umaga released his autobiography in 2007 in which he branded O'Driscoll a 'sook', slang for cry baby.

And although the two of them attempted to bury to hatchet a couple of years after that, when they bumped into each other in the south of France, it is clearly still an uncomfortable subject. Umaga, now coaching the Auckland Blues, refused to discuss the controversy at the pre-game press conference a few weeks ago. O'Driscoll, likewise, prefers not to talk about it any more.

"I just think it was a real shame, that the Lions media went down that path," Marshall reflects. "Having seen the incident after the game - I didn't see it happen at the time - in the modern day it would be very close to being a red card. It would certainly be a yellow card and be on the serious side of an illegal act.

"But the one thing Brian knows now - and Tana and Keven are very clean players with great disciplinary records - is that it certainly wasn't intentional." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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