With the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand only months away, this is a retrospective of the last tour there. Jeff Connor, former chief rugby writer for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper, followed the tourists throughout. His book, ‘One Knight, Forty-Five Lions: With Sir Clive Woodward in New Zealand’ was, for various reasons, never published. But it was written and here, exclusive to The Offside Line readers and in full gory detail, is the untold story of the Lions, 2005.
Monday, June 20, Dunedin.
Waiting for Woodward to arrive with his list of 22 Lions to face New Zealand in the first Test I notice, not for the first time, how the rugby media always seem to line up in a pre-arranged order at press conferences: evening papers and the heavies (S Jones, M Cleary, C Hewett etc) up front, mornings and Kiwi press in the middle, TV camera people at the back. The plebs (me and the remains of the Scottish contingent) have to make do with whatever is left, which is usually at the rear close to Alastair Campbell.
I know why Campbell stands there: it gives him a view of the various reactions to any of the head coach’s statements and when Woodward names 13 Englishmen, five Welshmen and four Irishmen there was plenty of those. No Scots – not even on the bench. I couldn’t wait to read what the rugby writer of the (Glasgow) Herald thought of that. The Welsh were outraged, too: no Michael Owen, Martyn Williams or Tom Shanklin (Grand Slam winners). Owen will be midweek captain against Southland which might just save Woodward from a lynching.
There’s no Henson, either, though that was expected and we all knew exactly how devious the management could be in cases like this: a photographer hiding, paparazzi-style, behind a parked vehicle and an image circulated of a concerned Woodward offering advice to his troubled superstar. Campbell denies it had been a set up; the snapper in question confirms it.
In one tabloid a Lions ‘insider’ – as us hacks like to call those mystery men who always turn up when you’ve run out of quotes – believes Jonny Wilkinson will be named at 12, with Stephen Jones (the rugby player, not writer) at 10. If that’s the case, we may as well all go home now.
New Zealand newspapers are full of Campbell … but not that one. This is the golfer, Michael, who has not only just won the US Open (relegating Tiger Woods to second place) but is also a Maori (with Scottish ancestry). Campbell and golf take over the front and back pages and there are tributes from anyone who could be found in the middle of the night: Graham Henry, Norm Hewitt and, last on the list of well-wishers, the country’s Prime Minister, which seems to say a lot about the priorities of the New Zealand public.
It’s a marvellous tale and worth a dozen front pages, but all rather spoiled by a newspaper article and its claim that Campbell had once been ‘desperate’ to win an All Black cap before taking up golf. Well, they all do, don’t they? Except, maybe, Maori boys brought up in Taranaki in the 60s. Another local reporter decides that Southland could now beat the Lions were they to use the example set by Campbell: ie underdog triumphs against all the odds.
Tuesday, June 21, Invercargill.
Coming away from the hopelessly inefficient 26-16 win over Southland Stags I wonder how the New Zealand public will look back on these Lions in the years to come. I’d guess at not much. When we arrived in early June the overwhelming elation of a first Lions tour in 12 years soon gave way to disappointment, closely followed by dismay and out-and-out dislike. The tours they still talk about here are 1959 – Lions lost narrowly – and 1971 – Lions won narrowly. The most popular tourists in 2005 are the survivors of ‘71, here as tour guides or TV summarisers. JPR Williams, returning to New Zealand for the first time in 34 years, is treated as royalty, which in rugby terms he is, I suppose. Twelve years on will the New Zealand rugby public sigh happily when remembering the halcyon days of Wilkinson, O’Driscoll and Henson? Doubtful, the romance has gone.
Wednesday, June 22, Christchurch.
As we have all worked out by now the Lions management decided on a good cop/bad cop policy when dealing with the travelling media; kicks in the bollocks in the morning, hail fellows well met after lunch. At morning training bad cop (Woodward and his army of deputies) allocates a tiny area for the snappers – 300 yards away from where the players are working. There’s talk of a strike by the photographers and some have even taken to wearing AB jerseys. Good cop (Louisa Cheetham) then invites us all to drinks and canapes at the Gondola restaurant high above Christchurch. The tour management will even supply buses to and from the Town Hall. If that was a pipe of peace I don’t think a ride up a gondola, a few canapes and a couple of (small) glasses of wine is going to work. A quick opinion poll with a selection of hacks and snappers: five out of six are not only expecting, but actually PRAYING that the Lions get the mother and father of all beatings on Saturday.
Back on dry land I head straight into the nearest pub, this time in the company of Tim Glover of the Independent on Sunday. By the bar: the large bulk of Jason Leonard surrounded by a BBC team that includes Ian Robertson of RWC radio commentary fame and Jill Douglas, Head Interrogator before and after match fame. Jason is in great, genial form and having spent a night trawling Sydney bars with him and Ireland’s equally dangerous Rob Henderson towards the end of the Lions tour of 2001 I could guess what had occurred here and what the outcome was likely to be. Jason is totally untouched while everybody else is totally out of it. Robertson still has his rich, smooth tone, but like everyone else I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Jill Douglas, looking not only well laced but rather menacing, then corners me at one end of the bar where she reveals a long-standing resentment about something I had written years before. I try hard to remember but have to ask in the end.
‘You criticized my interviewing technique,’ she says.
It all comes back. I had mentioned her habit of beginning every interview (a method copied by every commentator now) with a long description of what she has just witnessed and ending it with an answer to her own question. Something like: ‘Sir Clive, British and Irish Lions head coach, a 23-6 victory over NPC side Wellington Lions, another victory, some excellent tries and no injuries. You must be pleased.’ To which, there is only one answer.
Jill is from Hawick and is married to a large and abrasive former Scotland backrow – though not, I’d guess, as abrasive as Jill. So I chicken out and deny everything. Someone else wrote that, I fib. No, I’ve never worked for the Daily Mail. I’d always admired you (true) even back in the days you worked for Border TV and was the undoubted Queen of the Howard Arms in Carlisle. She is immune to such flattery. She even seems minded to take it further when, amazingly, Jason decides we have all had enough and leads a weary crew of survivors out into the chilly Christchurch night and back to the hotel.
Sunday, June 26, Christchurch.
Some might not admit it, but you miss things during a game of rugby. It all happens very quickly and events are only seen in real time. You rely on TV replays to make sure you have the right player in the right place at the right time before you submit the golden prose. It was frustrating then to discover that in the case of the Umaga/Mealamu/O’Driscoll incident the TV replays were no help at all. The cameras had followed the ball, not the incident itself, and it was only when it panned back to show O’Driscoll lying injured on the ground that it was obvious we had all missed something dramatic. Surprising then (or maybe not) when several journalists claimed to have seen the whole thing.
Without accusing anyone of lying, that was highly unlikely. The Lancaster Park press box is a glass, soundless pod, the weather outside was foul and the incident took place just 40 seconds after kick-off when several people hadn’t had the time to sit down. Like Twickenham, Murrayfield, Cardiff and virtually every other stadium in the world you’re a long way from the pitch. But 24 hours after the Lions had lost 20-3 (and lucky to get away with that) we had more ‘witnesses’ and more conspiracy theories than the moon landing, Shergar and JFK put together. Whether people saw it or not nothing was going to stop them from offering an opinion. Some (Kiwis) decided it was an accident; others (UK) did not and the affair quickly degenerated into something from the Christmas pantos we remember as kids: ‘Oh yes you did, oh no I didn’t!’
Some of the big match ‘follow-ups’ were hard to credit, most of them coming from the Kiwi press. There was one suggestion that Umaga had taken umbrage because O’Driscoll (and co-sinner little Dwayne Pele) failed to show the proper respect at the Haka. Reaching down and tossing a blade of grass in the air had been ‘asking for trouble’, some said. Woodward himself admitted that the idea had come, via email, from a local well-wisher … who turned out to be Maori and who had managed to convince him that this gesture was simply a symbol of manhood, and not an invitation to WW3. And why would a player with non-Maori parentage (Umaga’s brother Mike played for Samoa) get uptight about a Haka?
It got even sillier. The Kiwi media as a whole, several former All Blacks and even the Umaga family offered to appear as defence barristers on behalf of the poor mite. Umaga had never been involved in on-field foul play, they chorused, and he was incapable of such nastiness, ignoring the fact that there’s a first time for everything, whether it’s murdering a next door neighbour … or dumping a rival captain on the deck. Clive and Co had no doubt about where the blame lies. Once independent match commissioner, South Africa’s Willem Venter, decided that Mealamu and Umaga had ‘no case to answer’, it was straight into spin-doctor mode.
First, an allegation that O’Driscoll hadn’t received the proper medical attention because a spectator had had a heart attack just before kick-off and had used up all the available painkillers. The first (of three) Lions press conference within 24 hours followed: Assistant coach (forwards) Andy Robinson, so furious he looked ready to rupture himself, is convinced that, like the Wallabies in Sydney in 2001, the All Blacks had broken his line-out codes, even though they ‘had been changed on the morning of the match’. I try not to snigger, thinking back to an earlier match and Ben Kay holding up five fingers, shouting five loud enough for us to hear in the stand and the hooker throwing to a lock with 5 on his jersey.
Woodward, mindful of newspaper deadlines, arrives at the Holiday Inn – at midnight – for what he calls ‘an impromptu press conference’. We duly clean teeth, comb hair, change from jim-jams to work gear and head into the conference room where, like the great ham actor he is, Clive announces: ‘We have new coverage of the incident.’
A large screen is duly erected and the grainy Sky coverage of the O’Driscoll tackle appears over and over and over and over in slow motion, like one of the fighting scenes from The Matrix. After half an hour most of us are fading fast and one or two are falling asleep. The whole thing has become boring, what’s done is done and even if they managed to get Umaga banned for two Tests there’s half a dozen wannabe AB centres waiting in the wings. Woodward is like one of those terriers who are sent down holes to flush out the rabbit but in this case my money’s on the rabbit. Even Woody’s most avid supporters have had enough and are ready for bed. One hack is sober enough to work out an exit strategy what will suit us all and asks: who takes over as Lions captain?
Gareth Thomas, says Woodward. And that was it.
The All Blacks press conference is almost as maddening. Some of the pro-Lions media were obviously expecting Umaga to confess, forgetting that the match commissioner has already cleared him. Like it or lump it, no-one in their right mind is going to fall on his sword when he’s just got out of jail free. AB coach Graham Henry, bizarrely, blames the rumpus on Alastair Campbell, accusing him of ‘knowing little about our great sport’ when, in fact, Woodward was doing most of the whingeing. True, Campbell probably knows as much about rugby as we know about the format of a shadow cabinet, but even he should be able to tell the difference between a tackle and an assault – particularly when he had that damning Sky coverage. Henry, with that funny sidewise smirk endemic to a lot of Kiwis, turns to us as he leads Umaga away. ‘Boring press conference, eh guys?’ he asks.
An early rise and a taxi booked for the 5.45am flight to Wellington. The driver and I watch with interest as a young girl in a red Lions jersey staggers out of a Christchurch bar and falls flat on her face onto the pavement. Nearby, five or six cops are loading a man into a paddy wagon.
‘All that way to get pissed,’ says the taxi driver in what I considered the most discerning comment I’d heard in a month.
‘He’s in an All Black replica jersey,’ I point out.
‘Must be from North Island then,’ says the driver.
Image: David Gibson – www.fotosportuk.photoshelter.com