In the first extracts of Tana Umaga's autobiography - Up Close, published today - the former All Black captain recalls one of rugby's greatest controversies.
I was very enthusiastic going into the first test in Christchurch. I'd been looking forward to it for two years and couldn't wait to give it everything I had. Not even some of the worst weather Christchurch could throw at us could change that. Everyone knows - or thinks they know - what happened in the first 90 seconds. I went into a ruck and cleaned out Brian O'Driscoll.
I was standing over the ball trying to protect it when he bounced back to have another crack at disrupting our possession. We were tussling as he tried to get through and I grabbed his leg to try to unbalance him, a technique I'd used before and still use to this day. What I didn't realise was that Keven Mealamu was doing the same thing on the other side of the ruck. As I got one of O'Driscoll's legs up, Keven hoisted his other leg and drove him back.
He ended up with both feet off the ground, not in control of himself or the situation, a position rugby players often find themselves in. When we let him go he came down and what happened, happened. I didn't think anything of it, I just took off.
When the whistle blew and he was being attended to by his medical staff, I was completely focused on the job in hand. The game I'd been preparing for since the 2003 World Cup had just started, the pressure was on, and I was concentrating on what we were going to do next.
It didn't really occur to me to go and check on what was happening in their camp. There was no conscious decision not to go over: I didn't do it then because I didn't do it, period; I'd never done it for anybody else. I was a competitive animal out there.
The flipside of that was my bedside manner when my players got injured: if I saw someone in my team on the ground, I'd say, "What's wrong with you? Just get up." I was always telling cousin Jerry that. When they carted O'Driscoll off I thought Jesus, major, then I put it out of my mind and got on with the game.
I didn't go and see him after the game but I ran into a group of their players who weren't going to the after-match function and asked Richard Hill how Brian was. He said he'd gone to hospital. Again, I didn't think anything of it. When we got back to the hotel after the dinner, Keven and I were told that we'd been cited so we had a meeting with NZRU lawyer Steve Cottrell to run through what had happened. While we were doing that, news came through that the Citing Commissioner had ruled there was no case to answer. We were relieved but not surprised; from the outset our view was that since there'd been no malice or intent, the matter shouldn't go any further.
The Lions leadership and their high-powered spin doctor Alistair Campbell wouldn't take "no case to answer" for an answer and found a way to take the matter much further. The sustained personal attack they launched against me was hard to believe and even harder to stomach. You don't want to take it personally but it's almost impossible not to when another player, a guy you had some respect for, attacks your character in the most direct and damning terms. My first thought was geez, don't be a sook; there's no use crying about it, man, it's over. On the other hand I could understand how bitterly disappointed O'Driscoll was. He would have been just like me: buzzing with anticipation, really up for it, and desperate to make a point on the field.
There was a lot of talk about the Lions' response to the haka. Someone had supposedly advised O'Driscoll to kneel down and pick a blade of grass, which he'd done, and we'd supposedly regarded that as disrespectful. The truth was we didn't care what they did. I noticed him doing it but just thought, oh, that's different. Opposition teams had tried a variety of responses and our attitude was always the same: whatever.
We didn't understand what he was doing so they were one up on us there, but it's rubbish to suggest that it had anything to do with what happened at that ruck. The media tends to provide interpretations of what they think has happened, as opposed to what actually did happen, and it's often all that speculation which creates the angst and inflames the situation.
At first, the kerfuffle didn't really bother me. It was a case of, oh well that's the way it is. But it just snowballed and O'Driscoll kept going on about the fact that I hadn't rung him to say sorry. I'd actually tried to get hold of him on the Monday via the Lions' media liaison person but I never heard back. By this stage we were in Wellington and it just kept cranking up and I was getting a bit angry. I finally obtained his number and got hold of him but it wasn't a warm exchange.
He was still angry that I hadn't gone over to see how he was and once he'd got that off his chest, he accused me of being involved in a lot of off-the-ball incidents. The Lions hadn't been impressed with the way I'd played, he said, and I had to watch it. I said, "Don't talk to me about off-the-ball incidents, talk to your own players." (With all the fuss the Lions had made over the O'Driscoll incident, it had almost been overlooked that their lock Danny Grewcock, a player with a history of foul play, had been cited, found guilty, and banned for biting Keven Mealamu.) "Look at Grewcock," I said. "He's a meathead."
"Yeah, he is a meathead," he said. "You can't change that but we're better than that. We shouldn't play like those guys. We thought you were a gentleman." While he went on along those lines, I was thinking to myself, hang on, this is a game I take seriously.
And I did: I aimed to let an opponent know I was out there and get into his mind so that next time he'd have a look to see if I was coming. I'd body-check him on the way through or if I came up quickly and the pass didn't go to him, I'd still give him a little reminder that I was around so he knew that if he didn't have his wits about him, he could get hit, and hit hard. I had no qualms about it; that was how I played. That's the gamesmanship of rugby. Players sledge. I sledged a bit and did so in that game.
I was always trying to get an edge and in that respect I was no different to a lot of players. But when he started talking about off-the-ball stuff and me not being a gentleman I thought, oh, you're reaching now. I never went out to commit foul play: I didn't punch guys on the ground or stomp on them. So I said, "Oh well, mate, we'll just have to agree to disagree.
I'm sorry for what happened to you but there was no intent in it; it was one of those unfortunate things that happen in rugby." He said, "Yeah, but you could've helped it." "Okay, mate," I said, "all the best." And that was where we left it.
Instead of trying to get on the front foot straight away, our PR strategy was to let the storm blow itself out. But it didn't blow itself out and when I eventually held a press conference a few days later it felt like a hollow exercise. By that stage I was all for just taking it on the chin and getting on with it, but our media people wanted to respond to what had become a pretty relentless and inflammatory - as in "I could have died" - campaign.
I'd been getting a lot of support from the team all week and at the press conference I was backed up by the leadership group which was great, even though the exercise itself felt like it was all a bit late. Whether it could have been nipped in the bud is a moot point given the intensity of their media blitz but for a couple of days they had the floor to themselves and they made the most of it.
Even when I was being bombarded with questions I couldn't help seeing the funny side of it: poor little me surrounded by all those big, burly forwards as if I couldn't protect myself. It was good to have my say but I wanted to do my talking on the field. Clive Woodward had talked his team up, saying they were the best prepared Lions ever and wouldn't repeat the mistakes of the 2001 Lions tour of Australia, which was a crack at Graham Henry who'd coached that team. That kind of thing - attacking our people, talking themselves up - just steeled us. We wanted to show them that they weren't as good as they thought they were and Woodward wasn't as good as he thought he was.
They started the second test very well, scoring under the posts virtually from the kick-off. I wasn't worried because we hadn't had the ball or played any rugby. My message was let's get the ball, get down there, and give it a crack. They launched another attack but this time they dropped the ball. I picked it up and gave it to Daniel Carter because I knew he'd do something with it and I was able to run off him and score. It was a team try, pure and simple. I didn't see it as some sort of personal statement - "straight back at you" - because I never felt like it was me against them.
At times, though, they seemed to think it was them against me. As a ruck broke up, Paul O'Connell loomed over me ranting and raving. As I got up, their props Julian White and Gethin Jenkins started pushing and shoving. I knew it was going to happen at some stage so I just said, "Come on, any time, just bring it." I backed away slowly looking at them and saying, "Are you going to start playing soon or what?" Later, when O'Connell went down, I went over to him as he was rolling around the ground and said, "Mate, don't give up now, we're just getting started." He jumped straight up. When Stephen Jones came on for Jonny Wilkinson he took the ball up yelling, "For our captain!" like something out of Braveheart. I said, "Are you serious?" You could see how they were trying to motivate themselves but it became quite laughable. I got into some of their forwards about being a bit chubby and after the game Jenkins said to Steve Hansen, who'd coached him when he'd been with Wales, "Can you tell Tana it's nothing personal, it's just the game." That was a bit rich coming from them. During the game I hadn't thought about the stuff they'd been saying about me until their players started having a crack at me. I didn't go out that night but the guys who did ran into a bunch of Lions and reckoned some of them were good guys.
Tana Umaga: Up Close. Published by Hodder Moa today. Recommended price $49.99