Dazzling win confirms Warren Gatland’s call on Brian O’Driscoll
Early experience with Ireland taught coach to back his own judgment
Lions coach Warren Gatland shakes hands with Brian O’Driscoll following Saturday’s third Test victory in Sydney. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters.
It was always going to be difficult achieving impartiality when it came to Ireland’s greatest player being dropped for the first time in his stellar 15-year career, thereby denying him the chance to seal his four-tour Lions expedition by lifting the Tom Richards Trophy.
We all felt his pain. But judging by some of the poisonous reaction and content of the vitriolic emails sent to Warren Gatland, in social media and in some punditry, we appear to have let ourselves down a little bit on this one.
Knowing that “if we’d have won the series fantastic, if we’d lost there would only be fingers pointed at myself”, said Gatland yesterday. He also revealed a promise he made to himself when coaching Ireland, and specifically, the foot-and-mouth, re-arranged game away to Scotland in September 2001.
“We lost an away game to Scotland which cost Ireland a grand slam. Tactically, I changed the way we played influenced by some selections. I promised myself I would never do that again, that I would never back down from what I felt would be the right decision. On 50-50 calls sometimes you can be swayed by other coaches but when you really believe deep down it’s the right decision you’ve got to back yourself 100 per cent. I’d rather make what I thought was the right decision rather than have any regrets afterwards. I’m proud that I’ve continued to do that following that experience with Ireland 10-12 years ago.”
Whether it would actually have led to a grand slam in a shoot-out with England will forever be a moot point. But given it was the game which effectively led to the IRFU removing Gatland, despite beating Wales, England and Samoa subsequently as well as running the All Blacks to a 40-29 win, may even fuel the claims that Gatland was last week being vindictive in dropping O’Driscoll.
Ridiculous and scurrilous
For starters, the then 21-year-old O’Driscoll would have had no part in the removal of Gatland. And in any case the notion that he would jeopardise the Lions’ chances of winning a test series by being vindictive towards O’Driscoll is ridiculous and scurrilous. Indeed, the thought has occurred this past week, not for the first time, that if there is any vindictiveness floating around the Irish air it is towards Gatland, not the other way around.
In any event, Irish rugby’s loss has been to the gain of Wasps, Waikato and Wales. Warren-ball has evolved into a potent harvester of silverware and to be fair Gatland’s experiences with Galwegians, Connacht and Ireland left them all in better condition than when he took over and also served to make him a better coach – as the aforementioned experience highlights.
As he’s often said, forcing him to move on and linking up with Wasps, then at the bottom of the Premiership, was the best thing that has happened to him.
Fuelled by his experiences as a coach, and citing that formative example with Ireland, Gatland last week backed his own judgment and made a purely rugby-based decision.
Back in September 2001, he allowed himself to be swayed in some selections and to change the defensive system against Scotland. Never again, he vowed, and given it’s the head coach who stands or falls by the decision, understandably so.
As he would have fallen harder than most if the Lions had lost, it also has to be repeated that it was a brave, ballsy call.
Andy Irivine’s view
Andy Irvine yesterday revealed how upset the decision had been for him. “Without a doubt Brian has been the outstanding player in the northern hemisphere for the last 20-30 years. He ranks right up there with Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Will John and Martin Johnson. Personally, I believe he outstrips them all.”
“Warren made that decision quite simply because he thought it was best for the team as a whole. It would have been far easier to pick Brian, but Warren didn’t do that because he didn’t think it was right for the team. Brian was outstanding in how he reacted.”
That he was, all the way to the end, as you’d expect of such a classy man. And, no less than Sam Warburton and Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll is still now a Lions series winner. Maybe not in the grandest of manners, but it has worked out better for him than when he played in all three tests in 2001. And certainly better than 2005 or even 2009. There were also other hard luck stories, not least Alex Cuthbert, a try-scorer in the first test, dropped to the bench in the second and then altogether in the third.
It was a squad effort, the Lions’ starting 24 players in the three matches, and using 27 in total, with only Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonny Sexton, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn Jones starting all three.
Of course, as Gatland readily conceded, the Lions would assuredly have won had O’Driscoll been playing at outside centre.
O’Driscoll would have had a stormer with this platform and, critically, playing alongside Jamie Roberts. As the only inside centre in the squad, Roberts gave the midfield a target runner to attack the gain line that had been missing and that O’Driscoll feeds off. See his second try against the Western Force off Manu Tuilagi’s half-break and offload.
He’s still the greatest. Nothing changes in that regard. Gatland’s decision will forever be debated, especially in Ireland, and it will always have felt wrong, but it was right. If that doesn’t sound too Irish, which would be apt.