It did not take long for Tana Umaga to hear the year 2005 mentioned but when it came, the question was not the one he’d been bracing himself for.
A dozen years since the last British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand is a lot of water under the bridge and that has suited the former All Blacks captain just fine after the moment of controversy that for many overshadowed the Test series.
It really should have been put to bed years ago but a first visit by the Lions since then has reopened the wounds caused by that spear tackle in the opening minute of the first Test in 2005, when captain Brian O’Driscoll was upended by Umaga and Keven Mealamu, ending the Irish legend’s involvement in the tour just as it was reaching the juicy part.
It should no longer be an issue but it still clearly rankles with many on both sides of the argument that, firstly, no penalty accrued and neither All Black received any sanction, and secondly, a lot of journalists and supporters from our part of the world haven’t stopped going on about it.
On Monday morning there was a column in the New Zealand Herald in which the pot was further stirred, under the headline “Why Umaga should not face O’Driscoll inquisition”, handily teeing up the press conference held in south Auckland later in the day when the Blues, coached by Umaga, named their team to face the Lions at Eden Park tomorrow morning (8:35am Irish time).
As Umaga named a strong line-up featuring several contenders for All Blacks Test jerseys, for the first meeting between a Super Rugby side and the Lions, there was a distinct sense of foreboding as the floor was opened up to questions.
Following a few home questions centering on Umaga’s selection policy for the game, the sound of an English accent inevitably brought matters to a head as the man from the Telegraph began with the words: “Tana, looking back at 2005....”
Except the matters that most people were expecting had nothing to do with Spear-gate at all.
“...what did the Lions series mean to you looking back now from this great distance?”
A clearly relieved Umaga exhaled and replied: “I knew we were going to talk about 2005 but that wasn’t the question I was expecting.
“I thank you for that.”
Regardless of the more general inquiry, the former All Black captain was keen to stay in the present.
“Yeah, look, back then as a player the mindset was that it was something very special to be a part of a team to play against the British and Irish Lions. We had good success back then but that was back then. It is a different group now. It’s all about the 2017 Blues squad that is going to go up against them and we are just looking forward to making sure that it is all about these guys and what they need to do and focus on what we need to do to try and get a successful result against a very good squad that has come over from Europe.”
Far from being peppered by questions about 2005, it was thankfully a question and answer session firmly in the now and even when the dreaded year was brought up again, it was in terms of how Umaga felt about the ongoing intrigue surrounding that moment rather than the incident itself.
“It’s not about that time, that’s 12 years ago so if people haven’t put it behind them, then they never will,” he said. “It’s about this group now and their time against the Lions and the memories they make which are hopefully positive ones and we move on from there.”
And move on they did although the man from the Mail could not resist a final attempt to seek Umaga’s thoughts on that tackle and the immediate aftermath, only to be shot down by Blues and New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams, flanking his coach on the top table.
“Let’s just leave it alone, mate,” said Sonny Bill, before Umaga signed off with, “That would be a ‘no’.”
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