Sunday 16 December 2018

'Hopefully this really seals it' - Brian O'Driscoll and Tana Umaga kiss and make up after infamous tackle

All Black together: Brian O’Driscoll and Tana Umaga were re-united in Dublin ahead of Ireland’s Guinness Series clash against New Zealand as part of Guinness’s #AnswerIrelandsCall campaign. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
All Black together: Brian O’Driscoll and Tana Umaga were re-united in Dublin ahead of Ireland’s Guinness Series clash against New Zealand as part of Guinness’s #AnswerIrelandsCall campaign. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
David Kelly

David Kelly

Brian O'Driscoll and Tana Umaga may have long since settled their differences but their differences still unsettle so many other people.

Which is why now, 13 years after the infamous spear tackle which invalided the Irishman out of the Lions tour to New Zealand after 41 seconds of the first Christchurch Test, the pair have belatedly decided to publicly bury the hatchet. Not in each other, mind.

"The smart thing would have been not to wait 13 years," smiles O'Driscoll. "It might have worked out a little better."

Compromise has brought each man relative contentment; beyond their private, now public détente, it remains to be seen whether it will do for the wider population.

Such concerns have never been shared by either man.

"We parked it a long time ago," confirms O'Driscoll.

Screengrabs show the infamous spear tackle on O’Driscoll by Umaga and Keven Mealamu during the 2005 Lions tour. Photo: INPHO
Screengrabs show the infamous spear tackle on O’Driscoll by Umaga and Keven Mealamu during the 2005 Lions tour. Photo: INPHO

In the eye of the storm, though, it was difficult to locate any calm for those of us who were there in 2005.

The lack of citing after the Umaga and Keven Mealamu tackle; the revelation of a new, definitive angle confirming the pair's culpability; the ghastly Lions' PR machine that inflicted lawyers on us all, and a crudely exploited O'Driscoll, placed in front of the press to serve their needs, not his.

Differently

"It was one of those things," adds O'Driscoll.

"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."

Speaking briefly with Umaga after the pair's public appearance in Dublin, the Kiwi centre is amazed at the furore the tackle aroused north of the equator.

New Zealand largely forgot and returned to the business of winning rugby matches.

"I suppose the other thing too is there are other moments not every bit as public when we have been able to get together," says Umaga.

"The assumption of people is that it must have been sorted by now.

"As we know you can't assume things. But as Brian said and hopefully this really seals it, that we have put this behind us, it is settled, we are happy with life."

O'Driscoll had desperately wanted to contact Umaga during the series but calls weren't returned; he was angry at the fact that his opposite number, and fellow captain, hadn't checked his well-being as he was carted from the fray, not to mention being labelled a "sook" (kiwi slang for cry-baby).

Players are renowned for leaving grudges on the field; they did so and carried on with their lives.

They met briefly in 2009 when Leinster were in Nice - "Do him, Drico!" Mal O'Kelly goaded his team-mate - but without any sense of ceremonial photo op, it remained a source of controversy.

"From that point of view it dragged on probably longer than it should have because it wasn't nipped in the bud," says O'Driscoll.

"But when you get to take the p**s out of something, it is easy to park things and move on.

"I get asked about it all the time. In any Q&A over the last 13 years, it is probably the one question I can guarantee. Listen, we're able to have a laugh and take the p**s about it now, properly.

"Sometimes you don't get an opportunity to meet up with people in a controlled environment. We see each other at events here and there and have a quick word.

"Actually, to have a get-together now and not feel scared by it is refreshing and, I hope, it's dead after this."

They had dinner last Thursday; perhaps the host paid.

"We had a great dinner and good cheer as you do," adds Umaga. "I think that was the key thing for us, just to have time together.

"You pass each other very fleetingly at matches and engagements, yet to really sit down and really chew the fat around that was great.

"That's just part of this game. We can't change the past. As Brian has said hopefully this will really put it behind people and we will make peace with it now."

Ironically, for all his status as an anti-hero in this part of the world, Ireland owes Umaga a huge debt due to his role in saving Bundee Aki from the scrapheap; this week, he is likely to play against the country of his birth.

"Bundee will agree in his younger days his energy was channelled down the wrong ways. It's what we do when we're young but he's been able to deal with those things.

"I believe when I got hold of him at the Hurricanes, bringing him back to rugby gave him the structure. It showed him there was another path.

"Because if you keep going down the road you're going, you could be in trouble. You've noticed he is a very aggressive person and probably when he was younger he was a bit of a firecracker.

"Anything could start him off but he's been able to deal with that and make shifts in terms of that.

"This great game of ours was able to give him a pathway in terms of being able to achieve, open up his mind to what he could do because he obviously had the potential and the talent."

O'Driscoll asks Umaga if Aki is the one that got away.

"Every player who leaves and achieves is one that got away," Umaga said.

"But as a coach who wants to see the best for their players, allowing people to live the dream, it makes me proud.

"Whether that is for Ireland or anything, I'm 100pc behind Bundee!"

Umaga bears him no grudges.

A message to all, perhaps.

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