Ballsy call to drop O’Driscoll just doesn’t sit right
It’s hard not to be furious about it and upset for him in equal measure
Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip at training in Noosa. Surprisingly neither player will figure in Saturday’s big decider in Sydney. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
As ever, it was hard to see the wood from the trees in Noose yesterday and being Irish, it’s even harder to remain cold-eyed and objective about the omission of our greatest rugby player for Saturday’s decisive third Test.
Damn it, it’s hard not to be furious about it and upset for him in equal measure. For, no less than Brian O’Driscoll losing the Irish captaincy, to be dropped for the first time in his 15-year professional career at any level, and for this game of all games, will hurt him deeply, and again it just doesn’t sit right.
No one has a divine right to be a Lions’ Test starter any more than they have a divine right to be their country’s captain. Warren Gatland and his fellow four coaches would have spent much of the week and most of their hour-long meeting on Tuesday night forensically analysing and debating this selection.
They’d have been fully aware of the consequences (you’d hope) for it’s hard to think of one bigger Lions call in this or any other era than dropping a four-time tourist and former captain with the status of O’Driscoll for the first time in his career. So if nothing else, you have to say this is a ballsy selection, no doubt made with the primary purpose of beating Australia next Saturday in mind.
The proof will be in the pudding, for if the Lions win on Saturday and secure a first Test series win since 1997, he and the rest of the coaches will be largely vindicated.
But in resorting to 10 Welsh players, and at the expense of O’Driscoll amongst others, in the light of Wales losing eight successive Tests to Australia dating back to November 2009 (five of the last six by a score and four of them with the game’s last play) even if the Lions lose narrowly it will be regarded as a gamble that backfired. And Gatland picking two-thirds of his own national players heightens the risk of that as well as alienating the other home unions.
Welsh power game
Clearly, they are resorting more to the Welsh power game. The selection of Richard Hibbard, Toby Faletau, Seán O’Brien, Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts arguably all give more ballast to a team that has been lacking go-forward ball in the first two Tests, and the promotion of Manu Tuilagi and retention of Conor Murray above Ben Youngs further emphasises the premium being placed on physicality and the collisions.
But whatever about Hibbard, whether one can say Faletau and certainly the out-of-sorts Phillips are form picks is highly debatable. So in some cases past achievements and reputations have counted for something.
Alex Corbisiero’s recall should also strengthen the scrum, with Mako Vunipola to spring from the bench where Richie Gray becomes the third different Scot in three Tests after the unused pair of Sean Maitland and Ryan Grant, curiously at the expense of Tom Croft.
Heaslip even misses out on the 23 to Justin Tipuric, the third replacement in line to make his Lions Test debut. Size matters? Not one of the starting XV is listed under six feet in what must be the biggest Lions selection of all time.
The selection of Roberts to add a badly needed source of go-forward at inside centre, even if his form on this tour had been nothing like four years ago, is understandable, but picking Davies ahead of O’Driscoll, even strictly on form, is harder to justify.
This may be a ballsy call, but it genuinely looks wrong.
In last week’s second Test, again he may not have shown the pace and outside breaks of the days of Waltzing O’Driscoll, but because of errors inside and the Lions’ constrained, containing, kicking game, nor did anyone else.
O’Driscoll’s four carries was only one less than Davies. He made 13 tackles and missed none, whereas Davies made seven and missed three!
This is not to pick on Davies, a fine player and one of the most improved on tour, but nonetheless one who seems to have peaked with that stunning display against the Waratahs three Saturdays ago. In the last 10 minutes last Saturday it was Davies’ spillage, followed by O’Driscoll’s kick downfield, which ignited the Wallabies’ late siege, and Davies also missed his tackle on Israel Folau in the ensuing counter-attack before missing Adam Ashley-Cooper for the match-winning try.
And heaven knows how many more tackles O’Driscoll prevents by closing up fast on the outside. Suffice to say, it would be no surprise if Ashley-Cooper and those outside him have more space to play in next Saturday.
O’Driscoll’s excellent work at the breakdown has not been rewarded by the referees, Chris Pollock twice and Craig Joubert once penalising him for playing the ball even though on his feet. And when the Lions have gone wide on tour, O’Driscoll has shown some vintage touches.
Big game player
Then there’s the desire, experience and leadership O’Driscoll would have brought to the mix; a proven big game player in the biggest game of the year. The Lions, without precedent in 125 years, went into the first Test with two former tour captains backing up the current one, and now go into the third Test without any of the trio.
Wales have only once picked Alun Wyn Jones as Welsh captain under Gatland’s watch, preferring instead Ryan Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Warburton at various points. And the leaders in this team don’t exactly jump from the page.
Part of Gatland’s rationale in choosing Warburton initially was his relationship with referees, and even Romain Poite, the first European referee in the three Tests, would be aware of O’Driscoll.
Not for the first time on this tour, a Lions’ selection has generated the thought that the Irish lack a voice at the selection table. But as one English member of the press corps put it yesterday, O’Driscoll is bigger than any one country.
In any event, coupled with the omission of Irish captain Heaslip altogether, one imagines the Irish players will be shook by this, and certainly the rugby public back home will be. Put another way, there will be less emotional Irish investment in Saturday’s third Test, on and off the pitch.