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‘It’s 12 years ago now, for God’s sake’: Alastair Campbell on his role in the 2005 Lions tour and that O’Driscoll-Umaga tackle

The former political spin doctor talks to Toby Manhire about the controversial tour, and what happens when the media guy becomes the story.

Read our interview with Campbell about the UK election omnishambles here.

The 2005 British and Irish Lions side arrived in New Zealand full of promise. Coach Clive Woodward, still enjoying the afterglow of a 2003 World Cup win with England, had assembled an experienced squad of 44 players. His non-playing team was substantial, too. Among the 26 backroom staff was one striking household name, known for his willingness to get into a scrap: Alastair Campbell, the man best known for having been Tony Blair’s top spin doctor and strategist.

While the Lions won all but one of their non-test games against first and second division rivals in New Zealand, they lost the three tests, in which Dan Carter dazzled. Controversy flared early, however, with a tackle by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu, a couple of minutes into the first test, ending the tour of Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll. Media manager Campbell became central to that controversy as he stridently argued that the New Zealand players should not have been cleared by authorities. He later made headlines again, when players complained about a team-talk he had been invited to give by Woodward, in which he compared their task with that of soldiers at war.

I raised all that, and the tour under way now, with Campbell on Wednesday morning UK time as he walked through Regent’s Park in London. The first half of the interview – which you can read here – concerned the aftermath of the extraordinary UK election, though this second part does stray a little into political territory, too.

Let’s shift away from the trivia to the important subject. Are you following the tour?

Yes. Yes I am. I watched the game the other day.

Does it take you back to the tour of 2005?

It takes me back, but – and I don’t know what this says about rugby, or about me, or about the media, or whatever – I find it incredible that I still get written about with regards to the Lions. It’s sort of bizarre, really.

But it does take me back. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed my time with the Lions, and I knew, to be honest, that if we’d won the tests, there’d have been no focus on me whatsoever. But I knew that it was going to be very, very tough, and Clive Woodward was clear with me about that from the start, he said: this is going to be really tough, but I’m going to give it my best shot, and I want every part of the tour to be the best – I want the preparation to be the best, I want the media operation to be the best, I want everything. So he gave it best shot, and he wanted to do things differently, and that’s the way Clive is. That’s why I like him.

Woodward and Campbell at a press conference on the 2005 tour of NZ. Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

But I’ve got really good memories of that tour. There was a piece that [Irish former Lion] Donncha O’Callaghan did in the Times the other day, and the headline was something like My bizarre friendship with Alastair Campbell, and it’s true, I’ve made some very good friendships, particularly with the Irish and the Welsh guys. Some of the English guys were pretty iffy about me.

Didn’t the former Irish lock, Paul O’Connell, say a couple of years ago that on the tour he’d been plotting to knock you out after you gave a speech questioning the players’ commitment?

Yeah, I know, but the day before that appeared in the Sunday Times, he phoned me up, and he said he’d written this book, and the Sunday Times was serialising it, and he’d seen to his horror that that was the line they were running on.

Paul is one of those who has become a good friend, so I wouldn’t read too much into it. And, you know, it probably was a bit weird for them, to have me hanging around the tour, but Clive’s approach the whole way through was: media interest in rugby has gone to a completely different level, we’ve got to professionalise the way we handle that. I still speak to Clive regularly, there’s probably a dozen of the players I keep in touch with. You know, I enjoyed it.

One of things that’s been said about that tour, and other Lions tours, was that the challenge was always to try and keep the players who weren’t making the test squad happy, because they’re of course used to being top selections for their national teams. If you were on a line to Warren Gatland, how would you advise him on that front?

Look, I think it’s very, very hard. The tours, even though they’re absolutely crammed – and after the first game there was a lot of talk about whether the schedule was too busy, whether they had enough rest time, and so on and so forth – they’re not playing that many games, if you think about it. He’ll obviously want his best players for the tests.

I think there has to be, probably, a more ruthless approach to what the players are there for. So, for example, I was at the Scotland v England football match on Saturday: they’ve got 12 guys on the bench. Eleven players, and 12 on the bench. Only three can get on, and half a dozen of them, they were never, ever going to be on the field. They were just squad players. And I think there’s got to be a greater understanding that if you are seriously going to take on the All Blacks, in New Zealand, then everything has to be geared towards maximising the potential of the players who are likely to play in the test.

So I don’t know what that means in terms of whether you take players who never get a minute of a game – that may be the only way to do it. Again, you look at club rugby, or you look at Premier League football, they now have to have very big squads. I support Burnley, we had a right back who was a very big part of our promotion year, and I think I’m right in saying he didn’t get a single minute as a Premier League footballer. He was on the bench every single game. Very, very disappointing for him. No doubt, very frustrating. But I think we’re going to have to get used to that. In modern professional sport, you have to see it as a squad.

What about the Brian O’Driscoll incident, are you still stewing on that? It seems to have played smaller in this tour so far than it might have.

That’s probably a good thing. Again, I don’t think that was a very interesting incident, because the way it gets projected when it is talked about today is that, oh, Clive Woodward had me there and I was trying to whip up anger against New Zealand. Clive was adamant, and so were most of the players, and so were the coaches, and so was the lawyer, that that was a dangerous, illegal piece of play and they had to push it as hard as they could to get a sense of justice for it.

Clive Woodward makes his case over the tackle that injured Brian O’Driscoll at a press conference in Wellington on June 26, 2005. Photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Now, I think this is where, if I hadn’t been involved, perhaps it would have blown over more quickly, because the focus went to me. I don’t mind that. But, you know, it’s 12 years ago now, for god’s sake. But it was, I think, for most fair minded people, a pretty shocking thing. I think Clive was absolutely right to push it as hard as he did.

You talk about the focus having gone on to you, and it makes me think, in a way, it’s a bit the same as a back-room staffer in politics, as it happened for you in the Blair government, and it’s happened in the last few days with Theresa May’s strategists Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill getting sacked – when those staff become the story then you know you’ve got problems, don’t you?

Yeah, exactly. And, look, if we’d have gone on that tour and the Lions had won three tests, that would have been such a big thing, there would have been no focus on me whatsoever, quite rightly. I would’ve just been making sure the players knew what they’re meant to be saying, where they’re meant to be, and all of that stuff.

Also, I think politics and sport are very different. In the end, in sport, it is about what happens on the field of play. In politics, the communication, and the work around the strategic communication – that can have consequences that are far more significant.

And, to be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy the comparisons between the Tony Blair circle of advisers and this situation now. One, I like to think we were competent, we knew what we were doing. Secondly, we were very outward looking, in terms of making sure that the government was properly coordinated and the people were brought into it. Whereas they have run a very, very closed operation, and if you run a closed operation in the modern age, don’t be surprised if you make a lot of enemies.

The other thing I’d say is, you’d have to go a long way to find a senior civil servant who was around in our time who felt that we were not involving them, and treating them properly with respect, and listening to them and making sure, again, that they were properly brought into what was happening in the government. Whereas these guys [Timothy and Hill] have gone in and very deliberately tried to run it as a very small hierarchy, and you can’t run a government like that.

A lot of people would have said the Blair government felt like a small hierarchy. Many of the MPs you’d talk to of the day felt that way.

Yeah, for sure. But, you know, you’re dealing with hundreds of people. I mean, I don’t know what systems Theresa May has to keep key people plugged in, but we – just to give you an example – there wasn’t a single member of the government that didn’t have somebody within No 10, where part of their job was to keep good relations with them. I think we did the same pretty much across the PLP [parliamentary Labour Party], but of course you get big differences of opinion.

Finally, what’s your prediction on the three test series?

I’m not going to give you one, but I think it will be tough.

You’re saying three-nothing to the All Blacks?

I’m not saying that. I’m saying I’m not going to give you one, but I think it’s going to be tough.


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