The Sporting Life: The Spear of the Lion

By David Flin

It’s the 25th June, 2005, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Anyone who knows about Rugby Union now knows what the subject of this article is going to be. It’s the first test in the All-Blacks/British Lions series, and with less than two minutes of the match gone, international rugby union has seen the worst case of premeditated, illegal, unsportsmanlike thuggery ever committed on the field of play.

A bit of background. Before the start of the game, O’Driscoll had spoken with a Maori elder, and asked him what the respectful response to the Haka, the challenge dance made famous by the All-Blacks, was. Whether accurate or not, he was told that the best response was to pick up some grass and throw it in the air, signifying: “Challenge accepted.”

This is what he did, and some of the All-Black players later accused him of disrespecting the Haka. This, added to the fact that the All-Black captain, Tana Umaga, had specifically identified O’Driscoll as a key player in the Lions side, makes later claims that the incident was just an accident simply ludicrous.

The Incident After about 40 seconds of the game, a ruck developed. For those not familiar with the game, a ruck is when the ball is in play, and groups of players from both sides are trying to gain possession. It’s a physical struggle, with a lot of pushing and shoving involved. The ball came clear, and the players caught up in the ruck began disentangling themselves.

So far, all perfectly normal. It was at this point that a line was crossed. Not so much crossed, as leapt past with a Bob Beamon-like long-jump. Keven Mealamu, the All-Black hooker, and Tana Umaga, the All-Black centre and captain, made several grabs for O’Driscoll. The assistant referee came on to the field to tell them to leave him alone, because the ball was in play.

Mealamu and Umaga had hold of O’Driscoll, and they held him in a vertical position, head down, feet in the air, and drove him head first into the ground. Fortunately, O’Driscoll was able to twist his head in time, and only had a dislocated shoulder and a twisted neck. The injury was enough to end his tour, but had he not been able to twist, it’s almost certain he would have had his neck broken.

So far, so bad. Things got worse. O’Driscoll was stretchered off, clearly badly injured, but no-one from the New Zealand team, with the honourable exception of the scrum-half Justin Marshall, came to see if he was OK.

Things got worse. Despite video evidence demonstrating precisely what had happened, the All-Blacks, the New Zealand Rugby Board (NZR), and the New Zealand public dismissed complaints as being simply “sour grapes”. NZR criticised the Lion’s management team for making a fuss. The word "sook" was much in evidence.

Things got worse. Umaga gave a press conference, in which he basically whinged that the Lions were being horribly mean to him, refusing to shake his hand during the series, and that he was the victim here. Umaga had the audacity to write in his autobiography: “The sustained personal attack they (the Lions) launched against me was hard to believe, and even harder to stomach.” He displayed every sign that he genuinely believed he was the victim. Actually, the victim in this incident was the guy who nearly had his neck broken, not the guy who did his best to break another player’s neck.

In 2009, Umaga and O’Driscoll met at a match in Nice, France. O’Driscoll approached Umaga, and the two had a private discussion. Afterwards, Umaga said that they had discussed the incident, and decided to let bygones be bygones. When asked about this, O’Driscoll said that wasn’t what they had talked about, but that they had a gentleman’s agreement not to discuss what was said in public.

Nearly twelve years later, in 2017, Mealamu admitted that it had been deliberate, and that he regretted the incident.

It was a shameful incident, and one is not quite sure which is the more dishonourable part of it: the deliberate attempt to badly injure an opposing player; or the layers of hypocrisy, lying, and self-pitying whinging from the All-Blacks in general, and Umaga in particular, that followed.

However, there is an obvious alternate history lying in the incident. I’ve set the scene and described the main players involved. All we need to do is have Brian O’Driscoll fail to turn his head aside.

The spear tackle The outcome would not be a dislocated shoulder, but a broken neck. Not even NZR would be able to casually wave aside criticism, and the damning video evidence would be endlessly played. There would be calls for “Something to be Done.”

World rugby would find itself facing calls for the sport to be banned as being too dangerous. It was already under criticism, and this very visible demonstration of the dangers would be jumped on by those who questioned the suitability of the game. To forestall this, the game would have to introduce tough measures against tip tackles, high tackles, tackles without use of the arms, and maybe even whisper it quietly, getting someone to look at the absurdities of the scrum.

As a digression, I wonder why referees are so strict on the throw at a line-out being straight, but are totally oblivious to the put-in at a scrum being such that the hooker is best placed in the second row? Not that it bothers me that much. I was a blind-side flanker.

The Citing Commissioner had been introduced with the advent of the professional game in 1996. Under these circumstances, they would be given more wide-ranging powers, and would, for some years at least after this incident, be trigger-happy against similar examples.

The effect on women’s rugby is unpredictable. On the one hand, the incident might be used as an excuse to limit women’s rugby, it being considered too rough and dangerous for delicate women (and trust me, there were many in the administration of world rugby at the time who thought in that antediluvian manner), or it might result it gaining greater prominence earlier than in OTL, because of the greater protections. I rather suspect that any author of this TL would simply have to toss a coin for which outcome would arise.

It’s probable that Rugby 7s would rise in popularity. It’s a more open game, would actually make for a better television spectacle, and doesn’t involve so many risks of serious injury. With seven-minute halves, rather than 40-minute halves, advertising schedules could fit neatly into a sevens tournament. This, in turn, would bring greater prominence to countries like Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, where sevens are extremely popular, and these countries have very strong sides.

Actually, I rather like the idea of a TL in which Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa are world powers, easily dominating the likes of England, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow