Brian O'Driscoll on how Lions warm-up games will be just as brutal as Tests and texting Garry Ringrose after squad omission
Brian O’Driscoll has warned that the British and Irish Lions will have to be prepared to fight fire with fire in New Zealand next month. But the 2005 Lions captain refused to be drawn on whether the All Blacks deserved their reputation as masters of the ‘dark arts’, saying only that “none of us is infallible in terms of breaking the law”.
O’Driscoll lasted just 41 seconds of the first Test during the last Lions tour to New Zealand 12 years ago. The victim of a spear tackle by Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga, O’Driscoll – arguably the best player in the world at the time – dislocated his right shoulder and was forced to sit out the rest of a disastrous series which the Lions lost 3-0.
The incident was hugely controversial, both at the time and for years afterwards with the Lions’ appeals for sanctions falling on deaf ears and the Ireland centre branded a “sook”, slang for cry baby, by Umaga.
Twelve years on, O’Driscoll prefers not to discuss the tackle or the fallout, and is guarded generally when discussing the All Blacks’ reputation for knowing exactly how far to push the referee.
“They play very physically yeah,” O’Driscoll told The Telegraph. “Like all teams they overstep the mark on occasion. But none of us is infallible in terms of breaking the law.”
Ireland’s first-ever victory over New Zealand in Chicago last autumn, which ended a run of 111 years of defeats, was followed by a brutal encounter in Dublin a fortnight later from which the All Blacks emerged 21-9 winners. The manner of New Zealand’s victory, however, reignited tensions in this area with referee Jaco Peyper opting against showing Sam Cane a yellow card for a tackle on Robbie Henshaw which resulted in the centre leaving the field in a stretcher. Malakai Fekitoa, meanwhile, was only shown a yellow card for a high challenge on Simon Zebo.
Fekitoa was later given a one-week ban, while Cane was cleared by the citing commissioner, a decision which outraged many in Ireland – so much so that they were branded “the new whingers of World Rugby” by one New Zealand website, replacing England. Again, though, O’Driscoll refused to be condemnatory. “Retrospectively Fekitoa should have been sent off,” he said. “And possibly Sam Cane. But did I think it was a sending off at the time? It’s marginal.”
One thing O’Driscoll would concede was that New Zealand was by far the hardest place to tour. “I think it is [the toughest tour],” he said. “I didn’t get much love in the Test series [in 2005]. I’d imagine the [Tests] were pretty tough – the first 30 seconds was tough enough for me. But the other games were ferocious. Way more so than in South Africa and Australia. I just thought the intensity of the midweek games and the Saturday games before the Tests were really, really tough. The New Zealand Maori were the ones who beat us and that will be remembered for a long long time.”
Asked what it was that made New Zealand such a tough tour, O’Driscoll added: “I don’t think the atmosphere is any more intimidating, I think it’s just the intensity and pride they bring to their game. There is a real brutality to it. They are very, very big collision winners. The Polynesian element obviously plays a part. They are big ball carriers and defenders.
“Right across the game, even the provincial teams are stocked with skilful, powerful players. It just runs very deep. That means that the Lions don’t really get any ‘warm-up’ games. So it’s incredibly hard to get the right balance between knitting together and evolving a Test team, and trying to protect your players. It’s a double-edged sword.”
O’Driscoll said he hoped the referees selected to officiate in the three Tests – Romain Poite, Jérôme Garcès and Jaco Peyper – would be able to officiate without fear or favour. “You can’t have a huge bearing on that,” he said when asked whether the two teams would be likely to try to influence the referees. “You just hope the referees are strong enough not to be influenced by outside factors. That’s why someone like Nigel Owens consistently gets picked to referee the biggest games. Because he is his own man. Alas, there will be no Nigel Owens in New Zealand.”
O’Driscoll concluded that he was not surprised to see Warren Gatland announce a larger-than-expected 41 man squad, saying he had “no doubt there will be more reinforcements needed”. One of those reinforcements, he hopes, will be Leinster centre Garry Ringrose, who he admitted he would have liked to have seen in the initial squad.
“He is the man for all seasons,” he said. “He’s fast over the ground. He has all the attributes to be a brilliant centre. He backs it up both ways; enjoying defence almost as much as attack. He’s a player I would love to have alongside me if I was a 12.”
Asked whether he felt Ringrose would still end up on a plane out to New Zealand O’Driscoll said: “I sent him a text when the squad was announced saying I knew he would be really disappointed but there was a long way to go yet. A lot can change in two months.”