The Speargate controversy

There has been much media interest in the now infamous spear tackle by Umaga and Mealamu on O’Driscoll.

Tana Umaga, along with hooker Keven Mealamu, upended the Lions captain in a spear tackle in an off the ball incident in the opening minute of the 1st Test. The tackle resulted in Brian O’Driscoll dislocating his shoulder, necessitating surgery and missing the rest of the tour. It has been reported that Umaga, the All Blacks captain, had spoken to his opposite number but failed to offer an apology. There has been speculation that it was a deliberate action to take the Lions captain out of the game. This has been denied by Umaga and All Blacks coach Graham Henry. The incident resulted in a citation from the Lions.

This snippet from the New Zealand Herald explains some of the Lions anger over the incident:

“The Lions also have an obvious cause for grievance over the curious workings of the citings commissioner. Willem Venter, of South Africa, who decided that video footage of the incident was inconclusive, and then flew out of Christchurch on Sunday morning. Clearly, the Lions, and rugby followers, deserved a fuller explanation of why Umaga or Mealamu was not cited. And why Venter could leave the country so quickly.

“Touch judge Andrew Cole’s part in the affair was also odd. He appeared ready to draw the tackle to the referee’s attention, but then opted not to.”

Since the incident, the Lions have been accused of over-hyping and spin, in order to detract attention from their Test defeat and poor performance. Let’s have the Head Spin Merchant’s take on that accusation:

“I suppose the media team should take it as a compliment – we all have our jobs to do, after all – but no amount of words can hide either the reality of a poor performance or the massive disappointment that every member of the party felt.”

(Alastair Campbell’s “Spin no shield in face of poor form and spear tackles” from The Times)

I’ll have to agree with my namesake there. Let’s talk about some hard to dispute facts. The tackle was:

  • an illegal spear with a definitely forceful driving down action
  • on the Lions captain and possibly best player
  • in the 1st minute, implying a possible game plan decision
  • a long time after the ball had gone away
  • 2 on 1

The defense.

  • Umaga had a reputation for good sportsmanship
  • All Blacks did not have a reputation for resorting to injuring key opponent players
  • Rugby is a hard game, and people get injured

Ok, so my (biased Irish) take on it is that the tacklers were way out of order. The incident happened so far off the ball it’s not amusing. It appeared malicious, although personally I doubt that it was a pre-agreed tactic. O’Driscoll is lucky – it could have been far more serious than a career-threatening severe dislocation. That the citings commissioner found nothing wrong is farcical, and detrimental to the image of rugby union.

So “Yes”, New Zealand, Clive Woodward is using this issue to spin attention away from his pathetic performance (you can find my thoughts on Clive and the Lions 1st Test performance here). However, Woodward’s use of the topic as spin does not give you a get out of jail card.

I’m disappointed in Umaga and the All Blacks – they have completely destroyed their “tough but fair” reputation – not through their actions on the pitch, but their failure to address this issue off the pitch in any reasonable manner. All we see from the All Blacks is spin of their own. Shame.

Aside: I don’t condone D’Arcy’s spear tackle on Tipoki in a previous game – a spear tackle of any sort is just as illegal. One might point out, however, that D’Arcy’s spear tackle had none of the features mentioned in the case above – it was 1 v 1, he lifted and dropped (not pushed) down Tipoki, and it was an on-the-ball incident, obviously without malice. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous tackle.

I’ll let Alastair Campbell have the last word on this one:

“We had lost our captain in an incident that the head coach and an experienced lawyer thought to be a dangerous and illegal act. Why should we not express our anger and explain what actions we were taking to get redress within a system that gives you only 12 hours for an initial judgment?”

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