The 2005 British And Irish Lions tour of New Zealand was one of the most forgettable series losses in the rich and colorful history of the British and Irish Lions.
No test wins, outscored by a combined 107-40 over three tests, series-ending injuries to Brian O’Driscoll, Richard Hill and Tom Shanklin after the first game, and they were just the obvious problems.
A misfiring set-piece, too many coaches, too many England players, players selected with no game time, a camp split into two teams – the midweek squad and the Test squad – were just some of the more underlying issues on tour.
The series was widely regarded as a disaster by the public and pundits alike, and the brunt of the blame was placed directly on Sir Clive Woodward, a man who had only been praised as one of the brightest minds in professional rugby 18 months earlier after guiding England to a historic Rugby World Cup triumph over Australia in Sydney.
Woodward had taken an England team that was crushed 44-21 by South Africa in the 1999 Rugby World Cup quarter-final and transformed them into the best rugby team in the world. He was lauded, praised and even knighted, before crashing down to earth a year and a half later when All Blacks winger Rico Gear sealed a series whitewash for New Zealand with a brilliant individual try to cap off a 38-19 win in the third and final test in Auckland.
“I absolutely hated losing with the Lions,” Sir Clive said at the One Zero Conference in Dublin. “I’m probably still not over it now if I’m completely honest. I couldn’t handle defeat. I just couldn’t handle not winning this.
“But when I look at it logically, would I have done anything different? No. Was it the right thing to do taking two coaching teams? Yes.
“I want to see how they’re going to do it this time [on the 2017 tour to New Zealand], if they’ll do the same thing, because that’s you’re only chance of doing it.
“We lost a test series 3-0. It was an amazing All Blacks team. [Dan] Carter was at his best, they had Tana Umaga. I can use all the excuses but if the Lions record had been that we’d gone there 12 times and won 11, I’d be pretty despondent about it.
“Was the tour team united? I think it was, we just lost three test matches. Was the actual squad okay? We had no front page news, no stories of bad behaviour or all that sort of stuff, we had some really shocking injuries headed by Brian’s [O’Driscoll], which I think cost us dearly.”
Losing O’Driscoll in the first two minutes was a big blow to Woodward and his staff, but it was merely losing the captain of the Titanic while the rest of the ship headed full steam towards destruction.
Part of the problem for Woodward was his selection and really not knowing who he was picking. The former England head coach had just won the Rugby World Cup off the back of knowing each and every member of his squad inside and out, placing a huge emphasis on instilling a strong culture.
“It probably took us two or three years before we really started to establish a culture,” Woodward said of his World Cup-winning English team.
“Let me be clear, there were some casualties, meaning players who just didn’t fit. It didn’t matter how talented they were, they just couldn’t stay within this team.
“But certainly by 2000 I was confident of every person sitting in the room. I can’t praise Martin Johnson, [Lawrence] Dallaglio enough, because they got it. They were amazingly tough individuals but they also understood the importance of creating this culture, especially when you have players coming from 12 different clubs with all different cultures.”
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Woodward’s heavy emphasis on culture, punctuality and identity formed the backbone of what was a hugely successful England side. The Cambridgeshire native knew the strengths and weaknesses of every player in his squad and would simply not tolerate any player who would have a negative impact on the team’s culture and unity.
His strict methodology brought England incredible success during his tenure as coach, but he also felt that he had abandoned the principles that brought him success during the Lions tour.
“I wasn’t myself because there were a couple of players, that had they of been English, they would have been on the plane home,” Woodward added.
“Very, very quickly. They just didn’t fit. You don’t know them, you got to pick some Welsh guys, some Irish guys, some Scots, I knew the English players, I probably picked too many English players.
“But there were some of the Welsh guys, I obviously will never, ever name them, but I’ve just gone ‘well it’s no wonder we keep beating you’.
“I totally wish I had sent them home. I wish I had never taken them because I had found out before I’d even left on the plane.
“You pick your squad, you start training and you maybe have two weeks max, so within those two weeks I’ve gone ‘this guy, I just can’t believe what he’s like, I mean I’ve heard rumours, but I can handle this’.
“But you haven’t got time to and you’re going to create a real storm by not taking someone on the plane.”
Woodward added that if he had his time over again, he would have just scaled back the entire tour operation and put complete and utter focus on winning the Test matches.
“In many ways what I did was too much. What I should have done was detuned the whole thing and gone ‘guys, let’s face it, the chances of us winning are very slim so we’re going to throw the kitchen sink at it and do our best.’
“I would have taken one coaching team, sacrificed the midweek team, go ‘you’re going to get beat’, I would have focused on the Saturday team for the Test matches.
“But it’s one of those things; when you lose, you know you’re going to cop it, and I copped it.”
To listen to the full interview with Sir Clive Woodward click here.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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