We take you back to 2005 with an oral history of the 25-all draw between the British & Irish Lions and Argentina, played out in Cardiff before the tour to New Zealand
Remembering the last Lions home game
In May 2005, the British & Irish Lions took to the Principality Stadium, then known as the Millennium Stadium, to take on Argentina. It was a rare warm-up match played on home soil – an event to kick off a tour like no other in New Zealand.
What unfolded was later described as “a bit of a wake-up call” as a thoroughly depleted Pumas side took their much-vaunted hosts to the brink of chastening defeat, with Jonny Wilkinson – playing his first Test rugby since he kicked England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 – saving Lions blushes with an injury-time penalty to make it 25-25.
Their sojourn to the Land of the Long White Cloud has passed into folklore. Fans today still slam head coach Clive Woodward’s plan to take a “top heavy back-up staff” and over 50 players with them on the way to a Blackwash of three Test losses against New Zealand.
However, we’re only interested in one game, right at the start of all that.
As the class of 2021 prepare for a Lions home game for the first time since 2005 when they take on Japan in Edinburgh on 26 June, we walk down the boulevard of broken memories to offer new perspectives on a moment in rugby history some will have purposely suppressed. After all, many from Argentina may see things a little differently…
From the day the Lions squad was named on 11 April (initially with 20 English, 11 Irish, ten Welsh, three Scots and no J. Wilkinson – but hey, things change fast) to departing for New Zealand on 25 May, plenty happened. Here we hear from a cast of Lions players and staff, some Pumas and a match referee who all played their part and have different emotional souvenirs from the time.
Michael Owen, Lions No 8 (captain): “When you’re playing I think it’s quite hard to grasp what’s happening sometimes, because it’s like ‘the next thing’ all the time.
“Obviously the Lions is particularly special, but you finish the season, you have time to prepare, you get into the Lions camp and then you get on with it. At the time it’s difficult to get appreciation for what it is, the achievement. But it was definitely something special.
“I don’t remember the moment where I was told that I was being captain for that game, which is quite strange as I can normally remember those sorts of details quite well!”
Ollie Smith, Lions centre: “They named the Lions tour squad and I remember the dates, because it was horrendous that week. They named the group on Monday the 11th of April, and my dad dropped dead of a heart attack on Wednesday the 14th of April.
“I’d had a good career at that point – I’d played well the last year to 18 months, while I’d only had a few caps for England at the time. I was probably one of the better centres in Europe at the time – in the British Isles, certainly – on form. But being named for the Lions was a big surprise as I hadn’t really played that much for England.
“I’d played well against Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy for Leicester against Leinster and I think O’Driscoll probably helped me get on that tour, he maybe put a good word towards Clive because he was a big part of that tour, being captain.
“So I was going to tour and one part of me is going, “Oh my god, my dad is a typical father figure and was so important to my career and very suddenly he is not here any more.” I’m now in a Lions camp, trying to motivate myself. It was a huge emotional roller coaster.
“Playing for the Lions was amazing, but the person I wanted there the most just vanished out of my world, six weeks ago. I was dealing with my mum grieving, my sister grieving, and in hindsight I probably should have pulled out the tour. But you don’t pull out of Lions tours, I just couldn’t, you don’t know when you’ll get another chance.”
Chris Cusiter, Lions replacement scrum-half: “That first week I barely remember the team announcement. I remember feeling equal parts excited to wear the famous red jersey for the first time and terrified that something would happen and I wouldn’t make it onto the plane to New Zealand.
“The prep was fun, training at the Vale of Glamorgan. The build-up I remember being quite relaxed, not too much pressure. Mainly basic organisation.”
Smith: “The Vale had a great set-up out the back. We also got to a local club – I remember training somewhere in that valley. I don’t know the area that well, you know what it’s like when you’re in camp. You get stuck on a bus, driven somewhere, get off and train!”
Owen: “The thing for me that really sticks out is that everything was in Wales (for that game). We trained, bizarrely, in the place where I trained for Pontypridd U11, the U15s and through to the Pontypridd senior team. It was a place now called University of South Wales Playing Fields.
“I sat in the same seat that I sat then, when I was an U11 schoolboy, so that was a big memory for me, for the week. It was amazing. In terms of the preparation, I remember little bits of the stuff we were trying to do, but on the whole of that Lions tour I felt like we never really nailed the rugby side of things.”
Craig White, Lions S&C: “I remember players were tired and I was amazed by the sheer size of the playing and coaching group. It was a huge operation.
“I also remember doing a team-building exercise where we split into teams of four and we had to paint an image given to us (it was a piece of a jigsaw). When we had finished each piece, it was put together without us knowing and then the completed painting, as each piece fit together, was unleashed. It was a Lions logo/collage with a lion. It was quite cool and everyone had their picture taken in front of it.
“Whilst it was quite cool I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been cheaper and more of a bonding experience to have a piss-up!
“I don’t really remember anything about the training week apart from feeling like we were miles off the pace.”
Cusiter: “We also went to the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Man United. We met players like Rio Ferdinand at the hotel, etc.”
Gavin Scott, Lions analyst: “Was it the FA Cup final? We certainly went to a football match!”
Stuart Dickinson, referee: “I’d done the Waratahs versus the Reds in Super Rugby on 6 May, and then the British & Irish Lions on the 23rd. So I was there ten days before. Then on the 28th I was in charge of England versus the Barbarians at Twickenham.
“The groundskeeper who looked after the Millennium (at the time) later moved to Australia. I had done a number of games there and built a good relationship with him. I had gone along to the ground that week and they were playing the FA Cup final. He said to me, ‘You might want to come to the game.’ I said ‘Yeah, absolutely’, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll get you a ticket.’
“It was really interesting. That’s the first and only game with Premier League teams I’ve ever seen and it was the FA Cup final. All the blokes I know that know soccer they go, ‘You’re kidding, aren’t you?!’”
Scott: “As the analyst I was heavily involved with both the coaching teams. It was a big group of coaches, famously split into two groups (midweek and Test sides).
“That whole week there was lots of selection chat going on and talking about the game – Woodward sort of set out his vision for how it might go, his potential selections as the tour grew. The sad thing was when Iain Balshaw turned up injured, he just didn’t quite make it, and the interesting thing was seeing that large coaching group pick who the next guy was.
“For me it was great memories of a dynamic group of people.
“You saw the dynamics and the coaches were very fair. My recollection is really that Woody (Woodward) almost let them lead on the player a coach thought should be in, saying for instance, ‘What’s he like, this player who plays for you?” They’d each speak about them.
“And at that level, it’s always based on the squad. That’s the thing players may forget. A single player may say ‘it’s me versus him and I’m better’. Whereas often a decision is more around covering more than one thing.”
Smith: “They named the group quite early in the week and we got split up, so it was like, right, ‘You 22 to 23 are going to be the focus of this Argentinian game’. So you’re planning for a six-week tour of New Zealand and games to come but also for the short term, you’re going to play against Argentina at the end of the week.
“We would have started to look at plays and look at things that hopefully we’re gonna carry forward into the tour, and starting to get familiar. Some guys knew each other better than others, having played in international teams together or played against each other a lot. I was pretty new to it. I was rooming with Ronan O’Gara that week, which was interesting.”
Bernardo Stortoni, Argentina full-back: “I was in Biarritz visiting a friend when the union called me to tell me we would play the Lions. I was walking through town and I was very excited. It was an incredible experience.
“A lot of players were playing in the finals in France (so couldn’t represent Argentina).
“We met nine days before the Test match and the coaches told us to enjoy the game and the moment. We were analysing player by player since the Lions had not played together. It was difficult to analyse.”
Mariano Sambucetti, Argentina lock: “We had several injuries and I think the biggest factor was that French clubs were not releasing our players. Argentina were quite heavy on the amount of players playing in France then.
“As soon as you got the call-up, you said, ‘Oh my god, what an opportunity this is!’ It doesn’t come very often. Any call-up where your country is something special, but then this type of game. It’s not something very common, especially being from Argentina.
“We arrived (in Wales), we started looking at the team and we had several that haven’t played (for Argentina), several that are coming through. I mean, everyone knows if you’re in the original line-up normally or not. And also we had several guys, like Federico Mendez for example, who basically came out of retirement to play.
“It was one of those where there were a lot of old heads. These guys like Lisandro Arbizu, Mendez, then there were great players like Felipe (Contepomi), Jose Nunez Piossek, and some younger ones or others who were in contention.
“During the week we trained very tough. And one key factor was that Les Cusworth (former Leicester and England ten) was helping us. He had a very good insight into the Lions players. Argentina had an important twist on its professionalism in their approach, preparing for games around that time. That’s where 2007’s great World Cup comes from. It’s also safe to say that there was a big merger of upcoming players and very, very experienced natural leaders.
“During the week, I’ll be honest with you, there was basically fear. Fear of embarrassment. The old heads like Mendez, Reggiardo and Ledesma have a lot on the line with their reputation. These guys set the tone of taking it like an amateur spirit of saying, ‘Let’s go in and surprise everyone. You know we’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s put pressure on them.’
“The one key moment I thought in the week was when Les presented this whole analysis, he said ‘Okay, this is who they are,’ showing all their attributes, all the players, how good they were, etc, etc. Then we said, ‘Okay, that’s as far as we respect them. Right now, from where we leave this meeting room, this is over. Now it’s on us’.”
Scott: “Guys like (Sambucetti) who played in the Premiership, we obviously knew a number of the Argentina players anyway, but on a tour like that there’s usually a ‘we need to concentrate on ourselves first’ attitude.
“On a Lions tour, my recollection was, you’re also thinking, ‘This is game one… this team might also play game three. The other team might play game two. What is it?’ It’s all the basics of what our lineout calls are going to be, and all that stuff that happens at a rugby club in August over weeks has to be done in a couple of days on a Lions tour.
“So there was a much bigger concentration on the Lions development side of things, whereas Argentina would be a strong side regardless, just because of the attitude they bring. They are such a big-game team, that’s always why they do so well at World Cups.
“Looking at that squad again, that was one that haunted us for years in Scotland. Ledesma and some of the guys that came through went all the way to 2011. So while there were guys who didn’t play so much, they also had a team that was going to be something.”
THE WAY TO THE GROUND AND THE WARM-UP
Smith: “I remember being very nervous – I always got nervous before games, whether I was playing U15s or for the British & Irish Lions. The anxiety was kind of ‘make sure you don’t let yourself down, make sure you do your bits well’, but that would have been no different to whoever was playing the game.
“I just remember running out in that red, at the Millennium Stadium… with crowds! Not a huge, huge crowd but a good crowd. I think it was a decent crowd for it.”
Dickinson: “The atmosphere in the ground was just fantastic. I remember they said we’re going to start in an hour and then we got 15 minutes (more) because of the number of people that have turned up late and selling extra tickets… So that built the atmosphere.
“I think there was the whole theatre of that, of the Lions people perhaps thinking it would go to script or that this would be a 100-nil or training run…”
Sambucetti: “One funny story was when we were on the bus as it comes out of the Hilton. The police (escort) comes in front of us but we couldn’t move as there were so many people there and the whole thing was dyed in red.
“I see all those fans and I think ‘…holy s**t…’. And then they see that it’s Argentina and now I’m thinking ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna kill us!’ And then they start chanting ‘AR-GEN-TINA! AR-GEN-TINA!’ The whole tone was fantastic. Phenomenal.
“And then from the back seat of the bus, we hear Federico Mendez say, ‘Did you boys bring an extra bag? Because we’re going to need it for all the points we are going to take here!’
“We thought we were going to be in trouble!”
Geordan Murphy, Lions full-back: “I remember working with Dave Alred (kicking coach) before the game, in the warm-up. I remember him coming over and saying ‘Why don’t you try this?’ and giving me some sort of slight adjustments to my kicking and I was thinking, ‘oh, that’s quite unusual to be given something like that so close to the game’.”
Owen: “Everyone was really excited and looking forward to the game and I can remember the warm-up and stuff. I remember speaking to the coach. It just felt like one of those games, it was just really bitty.”
Stortoni: “I remember it was a very complete (Lions) team, with many English world champions. And the backs were terribly good players, excellent.”
Owen: “It’s just my recollection but it was like we thought we’d be okay and we’d just come for a game and a useful run-out. But it didn’t feel like we really prepared that intensely and we weren’t that clear on how we’re going to play. That was my memory of it.
“With the lineouts and stuff we just weren’t that prepared and there’s disappointment there because we had a really good team, and we didn’t really do ourselves justice on the day. And Argentina, I think they really were still fighting for recognition.”
Related: The British & Irish Lions and Music
Stortoni: “I think we surprised them with our press and tackle. They were not expecting it. We were able to score points fast.”
Scott: “I remember it being tough and It felt like we were thrown together a bit, which is what the team is (at the start of) a Lions tour. I remember we went down early to a try (for Piossek) and never quite recovered.
“And it was like this for two or three games, where there was some really, really good stuff but there’s a lot of handling errors and mistakes.”
Dickinson: “You knew to expect that competitiveness where the Argentinians really took it to them. Alright, (as a ref) you never try and pan out something to say ‘I think this is gonna happen’, but you’re trying to prepare for everything and you just knew there was going to be some tight things here where they’re going to have a go at them at scrum time and then they’ve got to take them on because that’s the Latin way. You know they want to be physical.
“They pressured them. Poor Gareth Cooper (Lions nine) kept getting caught a few times and he was getting frustrated. I don’t ever remember saying it to him, but a journalist, one of the Irish guys, came up to me afterwards and said I’d provided a funny moment for the press box.
“I asked what was that and he relayed something on Cooper sort of whinging and saying ‘They’re offside’ and I said ‘No, if you just stop taking a step when you get the ball and get rid of it early, you might not get caught.’ It wasn’t meant to be demeaning to Gareth, just get on with the game, because he was under pressure.”
Cusiter: “I don’t know if you’ve ever played with any Argentinians, but they try harder than anybody else. Especially with someone like the Lions, they were just going absolutely crazy. You’ll never see anybody try as hard as that.
“Then they got ahead and it was just like, ‘Oh s**t, the Lions are going to lose their first game to Argentina!’”
Dickinson: “The Pumas were just a step ahead, mentally.
“At the end of the day they were very much up for the contest and I think that just sort of smacked the Lions between the eyes. And by the time it went whack, whack, whack, ‘Oh, where are we, jeez we’re 19-16 down, we better pull the finger out.’ That was part of the deal, you know these guys had really come to play.”
Just six minutes into the game, Argentina score a try through Piossek. With a harried Cooper spilling ball, the Pumas worked the turnover through scattered medics and players. Felipe Contepomi sliced past the Lions front five and worked the ball to the wing just in time.
Sambucetti: “I cannot forget that try.
“Jose is like a pickpocket – he always finds a way of getting in with crowded places and coming out with something. I was at a ruck, there was a turnover and pass-pass, and Jose was going for the line. I couldn’t believe it. It was just a message that we could do it.”
Just after quarter of an hour, the Lions get on the board with a try from Ollie Smith. With the Lions lineout securing ball, it’s worked to Wilkinson, who draws a few defenders, pushes his arms through and offloads to Smith on his shoulder, with the Leicester centre powering to the line, diving between two converging defenders.
Smith: “Like any decent centre, if someone takes the ball to the line you try to run lines. And then Jonny Wilkinson, he wasn’t a bad fly-half in fairness…”
Cusiter: “I’d never seen somebody who could pass the ball like Jonny Wilkinson before. It was just unbelievable, throwing absolute lasers in training.”
Scott: There were these bits, like when Jonny put Ollie away, and I see that with things like in the Bay of Plenty game that was next that was the same: there was lots of stilted stuff, and there was some absolute genius play that made you go ‘Wow, this is what we’re capable of’.”
Smith: “He got his arms free and popped it to me and then it was just kind of a foot race to the line. The full-back was across one way and the blind winger was doing his job that well and was probably where the full-back should have been at the time. And, yeah, foot down. I did have a turn of pace before my knee went!
“I got to the line, I remember diving over between the two of them and I lost my boot! It was probably a good bit of advertising for Puma then.
“The thing is, I’d been playing with Darryl Gibson and he was great at taking the ball to the line – he was a strong, hard bastard in fairness – and would often get half the shoulder and get his arms free. We had an amazing, amazing team at Leicester at the time so if you get your arms free and offload to someone, you’re guaranteed to score a try.”
But Argentina kept coming and with a vicious defence and with their powerful set-piece they wrestled the advantage. But they had something else up their sleeve: the sublime kicking of Federico Todeschini. The scrum pressure did not let up either.
Sambucetti: “it’s something intrinsic and it just grows and grows on the park – it was one of those days (for Todeschini). And also as soon as you smell blood and you’re thinking, ‘It’s blood from the Lions’, it’s hard not to get excited.”
Cusiter: “I remember coming on with about 20 minutes ago and being absolutely terrified but also excited. Obviously it was at the Millennium Stadium where I’d got my first Scotland cap, and this was gonna be my first game for the Lions.
“I remember the first pass I made was an absolute zinger and the first few passes actually were some of the best passes I’ve ever made, so I kind of settled me down and I just really enjoyed it. I made a half-break at one point, made a couple of good tackles… Yeah I just absolutely loved it, it was incredible.
“And then I remember obviously getting through to injury time.”
Sambucetti: “Tell the referee I still don’t forgive him – he went for eight minutes too long!”
Dickinson: “You can go back and tell him it’s just the way it is, it’s not just 80 minutes right so when that when the clock comes up, you’ve got to wait for the particular break and all that sort of stuff, it can feel like 100 hours for the poor bastards!”
Cusiter: “Somebody dropped the ball – Gordon D’Arcy I think (it was) – and somehow we got another shot and we got the penalty. Obviously Jonny kicked it with the last kick of the game for us to draw.”
Stortoni: “I grabbed that ball and kicked it into the stand, very angry from having (not won). Ha, ha, I regret that. But I’m sure some Welsh fan must have saved the ball!”
Sambucetti: “When he (the referee) goes penalty, first it was us asking ‘Is it finished, is it finished, is it finished?’ When it was a penalty, we thought okay. My only fear was that he didn’t continue after that, and I thought,’ Okay, well, we’ll take the draw, but this isn’t fair.’
“But you’ll look back on a career and it’s about those unique moments. We always talk about spirit, teamwork, and you can go on and on about it but it’s those times where everything just clicks and aligns and you go in there as the underdog and it happens on a world stage with everyone watching it… Personally for me it’s my best rugby memory.”
Smith: “With not much time on the clock, it’s quite hard to get to the end against a team that’s willing to chase everything down and pounce on every opportunity. That’s what they did for the majority of the game, they lived off our silly little mistakes, our silly knock-ons where we’re probably losing shape and overthinking things.
“God knows how we got to draw at the end but Jonny kicks it and thankfully we walked away with the draw at the end. We got bad press for it but if you said in that press conference ‘I reckon in two years time this group (Argentina) plus a few others will finish third in the next World Cup,’ you’d agree that you could see that.”
THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH
Stortoni: I remember the walk to the hotel from the Millennium. We were walking, not with the bus. We stopped and talked with the British and Irish fans.”
Sambucetti: “That’s true, that’s true.
“It was a big contrast with the situation from going from the hotel to the field. We certainly didn’t expect to come back with a draw, that felt like a win. On the way back we walked to the hotel and everyone was… Well, you know how it gets after a match! When you see that you just slip the tie off and go into town with them.
“It got very friendly, let’s say!”
Cusiter: “There was relief not to be coming off with a defeat but for me I was just buzzing, so full of adrenaline, so excited. I was so chuffed with how I’d played, chuffed that I was now a British & Irish Lion, chuffed that I wasn’t injured, chuffed that we’re leaving for New Zealand a couple of days after.
“I know a lot of people have negative memories of that tour. But I loved every second, I loved that first game, loved the tour, loved the midweeks, and yeah fond memories of all of it.”
Smith: “I can remember just everyone being really, genuinely decent blokes.
“They’re down-to-earth guys and they’d be the sort of person who would take the posts in or help you move a sofa if you needed help. Rugby’s got very few idiots and the ones that are get found out unless they’re very, very talented and they can piss off out the game.”
Owen: “Reflecting back on it, we’ve been fortunate that it was given Test status after the event. It’s phenomenal for us. it’s actually quite a good concept (a Lions home game), isn’t it, and it’s brilliant for this year with one game at home before you leave.”
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.