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'It was the greatest tour I was ever on but there's still a huge amount of pain and regret'

He should look back on it with a huge sense of pride but Shane Byrne’s memories of the 2005 Lions tour are skewed by the disappointment of a series defeat.

TWELVE YEARS ON, the memories, both good and bad, are still as vivid as ever for Shane Byrne. The highlight of his career, no doubt, but an experience which has caused him a huge amount of pain, regret and anguish in the intervening years.

Rugby Union - British & Irish Lions v Argentina - Millennium Stadium Source: Neal Simpson

The 2005 Lions tour was an experiment which went horribly wrong, and was widely regarded as one which threatened the franchise’s existence, as the comprehensive whitewash to a rampant All Blacks outfit raised questions about the future.

Clive Woodward, the reigning World Cup-winning coach and less than two years on from his greatest triumph, tried to bring the Lions into the professional age but in the process made a series of ill-advised decisions which split the touring party and caused the disintegration of a talented and experienced squad.

“There were controversies all the way through the tour,” Byrne recalls.

“He [Woodward] split the squads and there were basically two independent sides working separately which was a mistake. It was a big error as it divided the camp. There was a Wednesday side versus a Saturday side and it was all about who was on what team.

“Whenever there is a highlights programme of the Lions, you never see that tour. Clive Woodward tried to use the formula he used with England to win the World Cup but what he didn’t take into consideration was that it took years to build that.

“We didn’t have years but the one thing I’d look back on retrospectively is that the 2005 Lions probably saved the franchise as it made the Lions tour go back to the old school set up which it needs to be. The camaraderie, the fun part of it. That’s how rugby players bond.”

Byrne was one of twelve Irish players selected for the tour, including five of his Leinster team-mates in captain Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy, Denis Hickie and Malcolm O’Kelly.

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For a player who had only broken into the Irish team four years previous after patiently waiting behind Keith Wood in the pecking order, Byrne’s inclusion at the age of 33 was all the more remarkable.

For years, he beavered away in the shadows with Leinster, waiting for his chance at international level, but Byrne then emerged as a key component of Ireland’s set piece and had nailed down a permanent spot in Eddie O’Sullivan’s side following Wood’s retirement.

His accuracy at the line out made him one of the cornerstones of the 2004 Triple Crown success and the hooker’s consistent form saw him selected alongside two of England’s World Cup-winning squad, Steve Thompson and Andy Titterrell, and Scotland’s Gordon Bullock.

“You’re always hoping to get the call and any player who says they don’t think about it in a Lions year is lying,” Byrne admits.

“You’re very aware and if you had a shit game, you wonder will that make a difference but a proper professional player used it as a motivating factor and used it to play better.

“I had to wait a long time to get my international career going and I squeezed an awful lot into it so it was really just about making myself as good as I could be to be ready for any call up that would happen.

“I suppose because he [Woodward] brought such a big squad if you were in any sort of shape you could have gone. Whether the fact he brought a big squad got me in the door or not, that I don’t know and I don’t ever want to know the answer to that one but the simple fact is I got to go on the plane and that’s what counts.”

It was the ultimate honour, but not something Byrne ever dreamed of. He associated the Lions with some of the game’s luminaries, the likes of Willie John McBride and Bill Beaumont, and never thought he’d be bestowed with the same honour.

“I suppose I would have been disappointed not to get picked as I’m very competitive,” he adds. “I would have been comparing myself constantly to anyone else around at the time and I would have hoped I put myself in a position to be valuable to a squad like that.

Shane Byrne signs autographs for fans after arriving Signing autographs upon arrival in New Zealand. Source: Hannah Johnston

“I found out I was in the squad on Ceefax and most people won’t know what the hell that is anymore. Later on I got the call from Bill [Beaumont, team manager] and once you realise it’s not one of the lads acting the eejit, it’s such an unbelievable feeling.

“To see your name associated with the Lions is incredible. I suppose once you get yourself on the plane, one of the first things they say to you when you gather is that from now on you’re a Lion and nobody can ever take that away from you. It’s something that has always stayed with me, once you get your name in that group you’re part of it forever. You’re a Lion.”

But now that he was on the plane, Byrne wanted more. He wasn’t going just to make up the numbers, instead focusing on breaking into Woodward’s plans for that first Test in Christchurch.

The journey began in Cardiff on 23 May as the Lions’ preparation intensified with a game against Argentina at the Millennium Stadium. Byrne started in the front row alongside Graham Rowntree and John Hayes as Jonny Wilkinson’s late penalty salvaged a 25-25 draw.

It was an unforgettable experience for Byrne as he got to pull on the red jersey for the first time but it also served to highlight the work that needed to be done in an incredibly short period of time, both on a personal and collective level.

“It was bloody hard,” he remembers. “We had only been together for a week or so and you’re going out to play a full-blooded Test against a physical Argentina side. We had an experienced group but it didn’t knit together as quickly as everybody had hoped.”

It was an unforgiving eye-opener but from there Byrne grew in stature and confidence within the camp and continued to demonstrate his worth throughout the warm-up games as the Lions won five of the six.

But the results didn’t tell the whole story.

Lawrence Dallaglio was injured in the opening game against Bay of Plenty and ruled out of the rest of the series and by the time the first Test arrived, Woodward’s selection policy meant it was still impossible to gauge which players were fully fit, who was in peak form and what the most effective combinations were.

“What a lot of people forget was that the tour was one of the most successful up until the Test, and I know that is what it’s all about but the results were going well,” Byrne continues.

“I was lucky enough to play a good few of the warm-up games and I was having a good tour. I was enjoying the fact that I was definitely in contention and I knew I had a chance of getting into that side.

Shane Byrne Source: Hannah Johnston/INPHO

Byrne may have lacked the power, and indeed the wealth of experience that Thompson brought, but the Ireland international’s unwavering ability to find his target from the line out was a huge strength. It was becoming impossible to ignore his performances.

Before the final warm-up game, against Southland four days before the first Test, Woodward announced no players involved would be in the matchday squad for the weekend. Titterrell started and Bulloch came off the bench.

“This announcement was something that was looming over you,” Byrne explains. “You’re getting ideas from training but there’s always something at the back of your head saying ‘Jesus, will this happen or won’t it happen?’.

“The tour was going reasonably well so I was daring to hope and it’s all the clichés you can possibly think of in that moment. There’s a possibility you’ll get picked but that creates its own anxiety because you hope you can still do it and if you don’t what did you do wrong. It just comes down to one meeting and one piece of paper.”

With the whole squad assembled, Woodward and Beaumont stood at the top of the room and addressed the players. This was the moment.

“You see videos of Lions selection meetings and that’s exactly how they are. There is such a tension in the room.”

Beaumont stepped forward and announced the Lions team to face New Zealand on 25 June 2005 at Lancaster Park, Christchurch.

15. Robinson
14. Lewsey
13. O’Driscoll (captain)
12. Wilkinson
11. Thomas
10. Jones
9. Peel
1. Jenkins
2. Byrne
3. White
4. O’Connell
5. Kay
6. Hill
7. Back
8. Corry

“I was just absolutely stoked. To get your name called out in those circumstances, it’s something no matter how much you think about, to actually have it happen and get your name called out is beyond belief.

Shane Byrne and Graham Rowntree The line out failed in the first Test and Byrne felt a personal responsibility. Source: INPHO

“It’s all a bit of a blur. You make a phone call to the family and say ‘look, I’m starting’ and then it’s out there in the wider world. It’s just absolutely amazing. Your pals slap you on the back and say ‘congratulations’ and it’s commiserations to the guys who didn’t make it. It’s something I never dreamt of but I’m just thankful I put myself in a situation where I did get picked.”

Byrne adds: ”I called the wife, the mammy and then the rest of the gang and it was in that order. I had loads of friends over travelling too. Everything that you can possibly think of in a joyous way is how it felt.

“There had been so much controversy in the tour but right up until the first Test, everything had gone as well as it could have possibly gone for me. I had had the perfect tour because all I had wanted to do from the minute I got on the plane was to get on that Test side and I had.”

Bringing Byrne back to that moment rekindles memories and evokes the kind of emotion only professional sport can. From the exhilarating highs, came the excruciating lows.

The series opener was a nightmare. The Lions lost O’Driscoll inside 77 seconds and were then torn apart by an All Blacks side led by the imperious Dan Carter, who pulled the strings and stole the show in a 21-3 victory for the hosts.

“We had a lot of issues,” Byrne says. “They had decided that week to change the line out calls as there was a bit of a rumour going around that New Zealand had got hold of our calls from an old board that was used in one of the previous hotels.

“They changed the line out calls that week and I was part of that. Once I realised that they were doing it, I had to row in behind it as quick as I could. I was calling the line out and we had to come up with a whole new set everyone could understand and unfortunately it didn’t work.

“As everybody knows, the whole set piece fell apart. Only one other time in my career had I come across a situation where a line out had completely broken down and right from the bottom to the top of every structure that had to do with it fell apart. Unfortunately that happened in that Test.

“We obviously had lost Brian in that Test and Lawrence and Richard Hill, these stalwarts of the game, so the squad wasn’t in the place it should have been. We still had plenty of experience out there that could have brought it on, it just wasn’t to be. It was a New Zealand side in rare form with an out-half in the best form of his life at the time. We just couldn’t pull it together.”

Will Greenwood and Shane Byrne Source: INPHO

Woodward’s side capitulated and Byrne, as the hooker, felt a personal responsibility for the failure of the line out. In the second half, one of his throws went straight to Ali Williams who powered over for the All Blacks’ second try.

“Absolute devastation. Less than two hours previous you’re standing on a pitch getting ready for the highest point, the pinnacle of your career. The greatest moment you could ever dream of and then you couldn’t possibly be in a darker place after it. Just a nightmare.

“The line out fell apart and we had no structure to build from. That was all sitting on my head, I had to take responsibility for every bit of that. It was just an absolute nightmare.

“The whole Brian O’Driscoll thing had happened and the whole world seemed to be talking about that incident so that eclipsed what had happened but I was dropped to the bench for the second Test.”

Byrne lost his place to Thompson in Wellington as the Lions, having made 11 changes from the previous week, were torn apart again, slumping to the lowest point in their 114-history.

“You just come off the bench and give everything you can. We had started that Test brilliantly but then again Carter started chipping away at the lead and just pulled the strings. It’s a horrible feeling when you can feel something like that slipping away from you.

“Thankfully I came back in for the third Test and I was just happy to be back, I didn’t mind how the hell it came about. Losing a Test series is not where you want to be, especially in New Zealand.

“New Zealand is a hard place to go, there’s never any let up. The intensity is there from every person, they all know who you are, what you’re doing and how you did. They’re lovely people but when it comes to rugby they have an arrogance which is well based. They have a right to be arrogant but it leads up to an atmosphere that never lets off.

“There’s still massive disappointment, there’s still huge disappointment in the way things happened but would I change anything I did before I got picked or would I change the circumstances in which I was picked? Hell no. It was the greatest tour I was ever on in my life but there’s still a huge amount of pain or regret involved in it.

“In hindsight I’m very aware what I achieved to get there and to play in all the Tests was good but there’s still a lot of emotion tied up with that tour.”

Even now, Byrne finds it difficult to talk about the disappointment of those six weeks in New Zealand. There are some wonderful memories on the surface but deep down the 45-year-old has found it difficult to bury the demons.

Shane Byrne Source: INPHO

“My wife has a few bits and pieces up on the wall and the memories are always there,” he adds. “But I still look back and think ‘what if’ and there is a sense of what could have been. I hope I get to the stage where I look back and say ‘Jesus, that was great’ because it was but the emotion is still there.

“I’d normally only acknowledge that in company when others say how great it was but in my own head I can’t look back on it like that. The perfectionist in me means the memory of the tour is slightly askew.

“I’m going down to New Zealand for the second and third Tests as part of a charity cycle and my wife told me I was going because she reckons there’s still demons left down there I have to go and address and talk to.

“It was the most amazing experience of my life and I’ll always be a Lion but I hope I’ll get to appreciate that properly in the coming years.”

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