The Blues are sweating on the fitness of star All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams ahead of their historic match against the British and Irish Lions on Wednesday after he was provisionally named in the starting XV pending a fitness test on Tuesday, but talk of Wednesday’s match quickly returned to the 2005 incident between Tana Umaga and Brian O’Driscoll.
For Blues head coach Umaga, a former All Blacks captain who led the side that dispatched the 2005 Lions so convincingly, the arrival of the Lions at Eden Park sees him take on the side against whom his most controversial moment in his career came against. Umaga and former New Zealand hooker Kevin Mealamu left Lions captain O’Driscoll with a dislocated shoulder and out of the rest of the series when they spear tackled him into the ground in the early seconds of the first Test in 2005.
While O’Driscoll missed the next five months of rugby, neither Umaga nor Mealamu received any disciplinary action, and both Umaga and Williams rejected any talk of the incident being brought back up.
“I knew we were going to talk about 2005 but that wasn’t the question I was expecting but thank you for that,” Umaga said when asked about what the 2005 series meant to him.
“Back then, as a player… it was very special to be a part of the team to play against the British and Irish Lions. The real focus for us – we had success back then but that was back then. It’s a different group now, it’s all about 2017 and a 2017 Blues squad that’s going to go up against them. We’re just looking forward to making sure it’s all about these guys and what they need to do.”
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Umaga was then pushed further on his memories of the spear tackle itself, to which Williams quickly interfered in his new role as Blues media officer to tell the media: “Mate, let’s just leave it alone.”
“That would be a no,” added Umaga. “It’s not about that time, that’s 12 years ago so if people haven’t put it behind them, then they never will.”
Williams injured his knee shortly after making his comeback from a broken ankle, suffered at the Rio Olympic Games last September where he was representing the New Zealand Sevens side. The 31-year-old has also had to cope with a concussion suffered shortly after making his return, but should he show no adverse reactions to Monday’s training session, Williams will start against the Lions at Eden Park and give himself a huge boost ahead of the Test series with the All Blacks.
Umaga named TJ Faiane as back-up for Williams should he fail to recover in time, although Williams was keen to stress his chances of playing were “pretty high”, and Umaga hopes that Williams will show no signs of reaction to training on Tuesday so enable him to take his place in the side.
“We just like to keep everyone on their toes,” Umaga said ahead of the first ever Lions match against a New Zealand Super Rugby side. “Sonny’s come through training today and that’s positive but we will wait until tomorrow to see how he comes through training and cools down. They’re not young legs like they used to be so we just need to wait for him to get cold.”
The two-time Rugby World Cup winner, who has 33 All Blacks Test caps to his name as well as 12 appearances for New Zealand Rugby League, admitted that the chance to face the Lions, be it with the All Blacks or the Auckland-based Blues, will rank among the greatest moments in his career.
I find the fasting easiest with footy-based training and I push back the weights until I break the fast
Williams, a practicing Muslim, admitted that he has had to tailor his training habits during the month of Ramadan to enable him to fast, and found that pushing his weight training back helped to cope with the lack of food during the day, though he did take solace in the fact that the winter days in New Zealand are much shorter than the summer hours in Europe where he has played before.
“We’ve got a pretty good coaching staff and trainers so I’ve worked pretty closely with them,” Williams explained. “I find the fasting easiest with footy-based training and I push back the weights until I break the fast.
“Thank God and New Zealand we’re in this part of the world as we only fast for nine or ten hours a day, in Europe it can be 16 or 18 hours.”
The Blues will have eight former or current All Blacks in the side that faces the Lions, with prop Charlie Faumuina the most experienced as he prepares to collect his 98th cap for the Super Rugby side, who will end their season on Wednesday as they missed out of the Super Rugby play-offs. Fly-half Stephen Perofeta has been handed his first start for the Blues by Umaga, having impressed in his debut off the replacements’ bench against the Reds last weekend, but All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino misses out as he continues to recover from knee surgery.
The Blues squad to face the Lions:
Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams/TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungatusi, James Parsons, Charlie Faumuina; Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scrafton; Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua.
Replacements: Hame Faiva, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kara Pryor, Sam Nock, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane/Melani Nanai.