When the British and Irish Lions travel to New Zealand this month, they will do so knowing that the last time they visited the home of the All Blacks, things didn’t go their way and they returned north nursing their pride following a 3-0 series drubbing.
Back then, in 2005, the Lions were ill-prepared for the onslaught the home side had in store for the tourists and from the beginning, the writing was on the wall.
The All Blacks’ ferocity took the Lions aback but it was the moment Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu double-teamed Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll and drove him head first into the turf in a brutal spear tackle that was most shocking of all.
The incident took place a mere 41 seconds into the first test and the resulting dislocated shoulder suffered by perhaps the top player in world rugby at the time, ensured the Irishman played no further part in the series.
Now, a full 12 years later, Mealamu has opened up on the incident and speaking to The Newsroom and reported by the NZ Herald, the now 38-year-old admits he still feels ‘a little bit stink’ over the whole affair.
Immediately following the incident, Mealamu left the upended O’Driscoll and continued playing, only to realise later that the Lions captain was in a bad way following contentious tackle.
“It’s one of the reasons I didn’t go back to see how he was because it happened so quickly and I had moved on.
“I just thought it was a typical rugby movement till I realised Tana was on the side and we had tipped him up and he had landed on his shoulder.”
Adjudged to not warranting any punishment for the incident, Mealamu and Umaga played their part in destroying Sir Clive Woodward’s Lions that summer.
Emotions remained high throughout the series, with O’Driscoll calling the tackle “deliberate foul play, dangerous, a cheap shot”, while Umaga branded the Irishman a ‘sook’, or cry baby in New Zealand’s slang vernacular.
In the years since both O’Driscoll and Umaga have met up but not publicly discussed the issue and even today the Irishman is at pains to distance himself from any media questions looking to lift the lid on the incident in a bid to obtain an emotive response.
Only last week O’Driscoll reminded the new batch of Lions that there will be no warm up games once they land on New Zealand soil but when asked by media, would not be drawn on the incident, choosing instead to focus on the famous physicality of the home side.
The ten match tour awaiting the Lions has been roundly accepted as one of the most intense and brutal yet faced by the tourists and the expectation is for bumps and bruises to be par for the course.
The All Blacks have continued with their oppressively physical style of play in the years since 2005 and have notched up back-to-back world cup titles in that time.
Their lock has also been unpicked by northern hemisphere sides in recent seasons however, with England doing the business back in 2012 and Ireland putting five tries past them only last November in an historic 40-29 victory in Chicago.
The All Blacks can be beaten but attempting to match the physicality head on is folly. Ireland proved this in Soldier Field. They fronted up when needed but didn’t over-commit. Instead they employed some rugby smarts in order to weather the All Black onslaught.
Whether the Lions will learn from this remains to be seen but the one thing that is expected and assumed over the the course of the six week tour is that they will face some seriously physical challenges, with more than a smattering of collisions that the media will brand as contentious.
An enthralling series awaits.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
This week’s podcast sees us discuss the upcoming Champions Cup final, Mike Brown’s omission from the Lions squad and more.
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