Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll has experienced some incredible moments in the green jersey and in the blue of Leinster.
From Heineken Cup glory to historic Grand Slam victories, the 41-year-old will be forever regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest every rugby servants.
It was that service that made him an ideal fit for the British and Irish Lions, with whom he toured on four occasions. However, the Lions moment he is most associated with isn’t his performance in his first Test in 2001 or their series win in 2013, but a tackle that ended his tour just one minute into the first Test in New Zealand in 2005.
The then Lions captain has stretchered off the field with a dislocated shoulder in Christchurch after being spear tackled by All Blacks captain Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.
The incident caused outrage on both sides, the Lions were, of course, unhappy with the dangerous tackle, while the New Zealanders accused the side of using the tackle to sidetrack from their poor play. The controversy dragged on for weeks before O’Driscoll eventually returned home at the end of the series to undergo surgery.
Although the talismanic centre is reluctant to speak about the incident, he did open up about it in his 2015 autobiography ‘The Test’ where he described that fateful minute from his point of view.
“Forty seconds into the Test I’m counter-rucking, pushing against Jerry Collins, when their hooker, Kevin Mealamu, grabs my left leg and tries to uproot me. He fails, at first. Tana Umaga, my opposite number, comes from the other side.
“By the time Umaga wraps an arm around my right thigh and Mealamu grabs me again – lower down by my left knee – the ball has just left the hands of their scrum-half, Justin Marshall, and Richie McCaw is gathering it ten metres away. What happens next becomes excruciating in more ways that one.
“First the experience of being picked up, then dropped from a height, head first and helpless, my shoulder dislocated a split second after I stretch out my right arm to break the fall, my tour over.
“Then, and probably forever, the sick feeling in my stomach whenever I’m asked to relive the incident as if I’m being asked for the very first time, not the five-hundredth.
“After they give me a shot of morphine to dull the pain and yanked my shoulder back into its socket.”
Much to the annoyance of the Lions squad, the independent citing commissioner found that the New Zealand players had no case to answer based on the match footage.
“The TV footage that captures the incident best is seen as either incriminating or inconclusive, depending on who’s watching it. It shows Mealamu and Umaga grabbing my legs from either side and lifting me off the ground but there is no clear angle of me being turned upside down and dropped.
“The South African citing officer decides there’s no case to answer. When Clive complains, he’s accused of trying to take the focus from our defeat, of burying bad news with a PR ruse. I speak up because I’m a competitor and if you take away – unfairly – my ability to compete, then I’m going to respond. I don’t possess the equanimity to take a pounding like that and put it down as part of the game. Because it isn’t.
“I describe it as deliberate foul play, dangerous, a cheap shot. I say I feel angry, cheated, disappointed with Tana – as a fellow captain – for not coming over as they stretchered me off.”
O’Driscoll remained in New Zealand for the rest of the tour. Clive Woodward’s side following up their opening loss with a 48-18 hammering at the hands of the Dan Carter and the All Blacks, the No. 10 scoring 33 of their 48-point haul. The final Test wrapped up a 3-0 series win for Graham Henry’s side.
In his autobiography, O’Driscoll said it was a terrible decision to stay. He tried to pass the time with friends and teammates but faced a barrage of criticism and abuse from locals for his description of the tackle.
“Clive asks if I want to stay with the squad or go home for the operation. As tour captain, I feel I should see it out, not abandon ship. But the controversy over my injury is a story that keeps on giving… Staying on is one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
“I’m a sitting duck and locals want their say. Not much of it is sympathetic. ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of it?’ ‘Couldn’t you just have sucked it up?’ Like I’m the guilty party.”
“The film doesn’t lie”
When O’Driscoll returned to Leinster training, a videotape was left in his cubbyhole from an Irish supporter with a note that said ‘I think you might like to have this’. The video, taken by an Irish supporter in the stadium, captured the tackle perfectly, much to O’Driscoll’s relief.
“After all the talking, all the accusations and denials, the film doesn’t lie. It shows me being dropped from a height, upside down, and fully extended. It says more about the moment that the millions of words already written and spoken.
“Better late than never, the International Rugby Board responds. ‘We are determined that such tackles are removed from the game’, it says. ‘They’re totally unacceptable and have absolutely no place in rugby’.
While the Dublin man felt vindicated, a line was never fully drawn under the incident. As much as he would like to move on from that game in 2005, O’Driscoll admits that it is “wishful thinking”.
“Like the hat-trick in Paris, it finds its way into the footage that defines my career. It follows me around like a dark cloud, growing more distant, it’s true, but never quite fading away to nothing.”