Saturday 24 August 2019

Blackwash: The inside story of the worst Lions tour in history

2005 flashback: Controversial selections, awful management, the horrendous injury suffered by Brian O’Driscoll and the appointment of Alastair Campbell contributed to one of the darkest hours in New Zealand 12 years ago

Brian O’Driscoll gets treatment after the infamous spear tackle of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. Photo: INPHO/Hannah Johnston
Brian O’Driscoll gets treatment after the infamous spear tackle of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. Photo: INPHO/Hannah Johnston

Julian Bennetts, Mick Cleary, Daniel Cleary, Daniel Schofield, Richard Bath and Charlie Morgan

On April 11, 2005 Clive Woodward announced a record 44-man squad, containing 20 Englishmen – despite England’s relatively poor form – 11 Irishmen, 10 Welshmen and three Scots, as well as a unprecedented 26-person backroom staff.

Andy Robinson, assistant coach

There was a good number of the Welsh team in the squad – they were a successful team and had won a Grand Slam. There probably should have been a few more Scottish players but there was quality in who we brought. The meaning of the Lions is important and we knew what that meant: both Clive and I had played for the Lions. Everything that was done, and that the management and players put in place, was to respect the real value of the Lions.

Donncha O’Callaghan, Irish second-row

I watched the team announcement on Sky and didn’t think I was getting in. When my name came up I leapt around the house. When I stopped jumping round the place I was in the back garden. It was brilliant, special. I went off to training that day and by the time I came back my house was hopping. There was a party going on.

Lewis Moody, English flanker

The infamous spear tackle of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. AP Photo/Fotopress
The infamous spear tackle of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. AP Photo/Fotopress

There was a sense of ambition and Clive very much approached it as he approached his businesses - as an incredibly good manager and obsessed about getting all the right people in place in the right areas to deliver the best possible product and outcome. He approached the Lions in the same way.


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The squad met up at the Vale of Glamorgan to prepare for a one-off Test against Argentina in Cardiff on May 23 – the first time the Lions had played a Test before a tour.

Chris Cusiter, Scottish scrum-half

Former England and Lions rugby coach Clive Woodward during an interview at the One Zero Tech Conference in the RDS. Photo : Tony Gavin
Former England and Lions rugby coach Clive Woodward during an interview at the One Zero Tech Conference in the RDS. Photo : Tony Gavin
Brian O'Driscoll is now a pundit and an ambassador for HSBC. Photo: PA
Tony Blair's former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell
Jonny Wilkinson is now a pundit and coach. Photo: PA
Andy Robinson. Photo: PA
Former England rugby player Lewis Moody. Photo: AP

There weren’t many Scots so you had to make friends pretty quickly. I was pretty happy with my form in training and Neil Back came up to me at the end of the session, patted me on the back and said “good session Andy”. I was too polite to correct him but laughed about it later on. There were a couple of annoying personalities but by and large people were fantastic; it was very friendly atmosphere.

Donncha O’Callaghan

That first night I was rooming with Richard Hill, who was a hero for me. He was late getting in because there was a crash on the motorway but I couldn’t go to bed – it was Richard Hill! The next morning he said: ‘Come on, we are going for a cup of tea’, so I ended up sitting with the English lads – Matt Dawson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Danny Grewcock.

The Irish guys were questioning me, asking if I had turned soft and if I had lost my marbles already!

That was the last time on that tour I shared a room with anyone. I do understand that, because when you are dealing with professional athletes they all have such different routines. But I think Lions tours are different. You do need to find something; even if you don’t get on, it’s a talking point between the two of you. Now, looking back, you ask yourself: ‘how well did you know your team-mates?’

Brian O’Driscoll, Irish centre and captain

Things like rooming together are a vital component, and we didn’t do that in ’05. It creates separation. It doesn’t lend itself too well to guys investing in one another and creating a really deep team spirit. You need to train together, too. There were guys I barely trained with in ’05.


Jonny Wilkinson, playing his first game against international opposition since the 2003 World Cup final, kicked 20 points to salvage a 25-25 draw against Argentina before the Lions flew to New Zealand. They then laboured to a 34-20 win in the first tour match against the Bay of Plenty, a game marred by the dislocated ankle that ended Lawrence Dallaglio’s tour.

Andy Robinson

We had a bit of a wake-up call against Argentina but we started off against the Bay of Plenty on fire, scoring 17 points in the first 11 minutes. We were looking round thinking: ‘We are in a good place here’. But suddenly Lawrence dislocates his ankle and we are hanging on to the game. Lawrence was a huge loss. He had an aura on those trips.


The second game against Taranaki was won 36-14 but the third, against New Zealand Maori, resulted in their first defeat, 19-13.

Lewis Moody

Losing to the Maori knocked everyone’s confidence and I think morale started to ebb a bit. The coaches started to question some of the players in the camp and there was a lot of anxiety after that loss.

Andy Robinson

I think that was the moment when you realised New Zealand have a lot of quality rugby players that were there to set out their stall to beat the Lions. The body heights of the Maori in the rucks and the physicality was something that hadn’t been experienced by a lot of players.


At this point it had become clear there were two squads: the Test team, and the midweek team. Woodward and Robinson led the Test team, with Ian McGeechan, Gareth Jenkins and Mike Ford in charge of the midweek team. It was one of the defining decisions of the tour.

Andy Robinson

That was obviously driven by Clive, it was the thought process from his side. What did I think of it? I think it is open to interpretation. Any decision you make you can look back in hindsight and go: ‘Would we have done it differently?’

At the time it seemed like the right thing to do for us as a group to be able to share the loading. The success of the tour was about winning three Test matches. Becoming legends is about winning those three matches.

Chris Cusiter

It was really obvious that they knew who the Test side was. That’s fair enough, but that team hadn’t played together for the whole tour. So it was like a secret plan that wasn’t a secret.

Mike Ford, assistant coach

It’s easy to be critical in hindsight but at the time you thought: ‘He’s got this right, Clive. He’s taking more players than usual because it’s a tough tour and you’re going to get injuries, and having two different coaching teams.’

Never did we split and say there were two separate groups of players.

We were supposed to do alternate games as coaches but Clive made a decision early in the tour that we would do a Saturday game as well and keep the Test team back in Auckland and give them two weeks’ preparation. It was done to give the Test team the best preparation but in hindsight they probably just needed to get out there and play and gel together more.


The gap between the midweek and Test team was already pronounced by the time Woodward announced that no-one who featured in the final provincial game against Southland Stags – including Gavin Henson – would play in the opening Test.

Donncha O’Callaghan

We called ourselves the Mid-Week Massive. We had a hand sign we could make, going ‘MWM’. Any time the midweek massive were on a flight there was cries going out: “If we crash would anyone care?” Or “Does Clive know we’re even here?”

There was a kind of chip on the shoulder but I actually think the management of that squad did a great job. I definitely felt they left us to express ourselves as opposed to the Test squad, who were being maybe dictated to.

Being involved in the midweek team was so good, it was such a brilliant environment and that had an awful lot to do with Gareth Jenkins and Ian McGeechan, who ran those teams. I think they got the vibe right.

Lewis Moody

I still have a T-shirt somewhere saying ‘Midweek Massive’ with the dates and times of the games we played. I had experience of both that side and the Test side and it was awesome. Everyone talks about having one squad but it is difficult to manage. The guys in the midweek team feel like they are creating an environment.

Donncha O’Callaghan

We were in the south island and the lads were preparing for the first Test in the north island, and we had people coming out to watch a session and they were saying to us: “Where’s Jonny, where’s Drico, where’s Paulie, Will Greenwood?”

And we’re going: “We don’t know either!”

Chris Cusiter

People say the tour was an absolute disaster because of the results in the Test series. I understand that but I played in that midweek team and I’m sure if you ask the guys who played in the midweek side and didn’t have much interaction with the Test side, it was an amazing tour.


In the build-up to the first Test, the coaching staff became increasingly concerned they were being spied on. The decision was then made to change all lineout calls in the week of the first Test.

Andy Robinson

We had an issue where we thought we were being watched at our training base. We were training in the quadrant of a school – anyone could have watched us. So there was an issue for us around the line-out calls… It (changing the calls) isn’t something we should really be doing in the week of a Test match.

Lewis Moody

It might not sound a big deal but when you spend five weeks learning the calls and then change them in the last week, that adds to the confusion and makes things harder.


The first Test got off to the worst possible start when captain Brian O’Driscoll was spear-tackled by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu in the first minute, fracturing his collarbone. The Lions’ lineout fell apart and they were thrashed 21-3.

Justin Marshall, All Black scrum-half

We knew bad weather was coming and we thought it might play into their hands if it became an arm-wrestle. But I just remember how dominant our forward pack was. They pretty much shoved the Lions around the park, demolished them in the scrum and stole so much of their line-out ball.

They didn’t front-up up front, we dominated them in that area. When you’re on the front foot with the backline we had, we created a lot of opportunities, although we didn’t finish as many as we would have liked. It was just an incredibly focused and ruthless All Black forward pack.

Donncha O’Callaghan

It was like New Zealand were playing a different type of rugby. We looked like we were in second and third gear, so it sent a shockwave around the whole squad that maybe we were not at the level required. They were playing at a different pace.

Of course you smell opportunity (to play yourself) when a team doesn’t go well, but there is also that bit of panic: New Zealand are quality, so how do we fix this?

Justin Marshall

We didn’t expect to have that much dominance. I thought they would be a lot more niggly than they were, trying to rattle us and getting under our skin. It wasn’t easy though, it was still competitive but we played very well. I just remember thinking: ‘Why aren’t they being more proactive and trying to grab the game by the scruff of the neck?’

We were well up and they were still trying to kick penalties when they needed to accumulate in fives not threes. I couldn’t understand why they were doing that.


The aftermath of the match was dominated by the Lions’ anger at New Zealand’s treatment of O’Driscoll.

Andy Robinson

He was a key player for us and, being the captain, they deliberately went out to target him. I am not sure they deliberately tried to injure him but they wanted to make a statement.

If that incident happened today the players would be red-carded. I think it left a bit of a sour taste for everybody, what happened.

Chris Cusiter

When you see it in slow-mo it was a ridiculous tackle, really out of order.

Alastair Campbell and Clive Woodward called a press conference right after the Test and they highlighted exactly what had happened. That wound the New Zealand media up a lot because instead of talking about the game and the fact that the Lions had been beaten they were talking about this.

They couldn’t believe that the Lions would accuse these legends of foul play but it was clear as day on the video, and there should have been some punishment.

It all got a bit personal and nasty after that, and that’s when the relationship with the media really went downhill.


The Lions made 11 changes to their squad ahead of the second Test, bringing in the likes of Donncha O’Callaghan and Lewis Moody.

Donncha O’Callaghan

I got called into the Test squad and I couldn’t believe how little fun there was in any part of the training sessions.

I remember we were warming up and I was joking around and Paulie (O’Connell) gave me a rap on the knuckles, saying “we are preparing for a Test match here, Donners”. I was there going, “It’s Monday, Paulie.”

I think it was a pressure cooker for some lads from minute one and that led to them probably not enjoying the tour as much as some of the other guys did. I absolutely loved it!


The second Test started well, with new captain Gareth Thomas scoring after a minute, but Dan Carter took centre stage with one of the all-time great individual performances, scoring 33 points in New Zealand’s 48-18 win.

Donncha O’Callaghan

Carter had the perfect game. He was the difference on that whole tour. But Test Two gave us a bit more hope. If we had put a performance like that out in the first Test it would have given us a glimmer of a chance.

Andy Robinson

It was the speed and intensity they played with. Everything clicked for them on that day and Carter played the perfect Test match. Everyone had to admire the quality of the guy.

Justin Marshall

I don’t think Dan single-handedly won that game but he did show he was going to be a great of the game because when you need your inspirational players to step up, he did that.

That launched his self-belief, knowing he could command this All Black team for the next 10 years.


With the series lost, the week building up to the third Test was more relaxed, but New Zealand were still too good, winning 38-19.

Lewis Moody

I remember that last week being a totally different affair to the rest of the tour. It seemed everyone had switched off. Training was more low-key, the coaches were more relaxed and chilled out. It was a very different week’s preparation compared to the previous two.

Donncha O’Callaghan

I was disappointed with some guys. Even the address before the third Test was: “Let’s get this done and go home”. I found that so, so embarrassing.

Honestly, this was the pinnacle of not only my rugby career but my life. It was the vibe around a certain group at that time. But I understand how they could get to that point when every game was so intense for them.


The Lions returned amid discussion over the viability of future tours, although there were those who enjoyed it.

Donncha O’Callaghan

I know this is crazy to say, but I got a kick out of some of my team-mates. There were some guys who were nearly half-depressed on that tour. That merely gave me a bigger gee-up. I loved seeing those guys miserable while I was loving it!

Andy Robinson

All the decisions that were made on that trip were done for the right reasons. There were good discussions and in the end you have to respect the decisions that were made. That was a very good New Zealand side we played. They went on to win two World Cups and it was the beginning of that side, with real quality led by Richie McCaw and Carter.

It’s similar to what the Lions are going to face on this trip. They are rebuilding but have a lot to prove.

Donncha O’Callaghan

I think maybe Clive was a little bit ahead of himself. I think what he did was right, but I think he was nearly too professional for that time.

And New Zealand is a very, very tough tour. You are playing against everyone. I remember trying to buy a pair of laces, and because I had my Lions polo shirt on the lady in the shop told me to get them somewhere else as she wouldn’t be helping us beat New Zealand!

In South Africa in 2009, the environment was totally different. We went back to a bit of the Baa-Baas mentality. Three nights into that tour I remember getting a text from Sir Ian McGeechan saying: “Lads, I’m in the bar if any of you want to join me.”

Sometimes you just need to be in each other’s company. That’s all you need.

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