Legacy of a divisive Lions tour adds spice as rivalry with Wales renewed
The treatment of Brian O’Driscoll by Warren Gatland is just one subplot
“We’re not in Syria,” said Alun Wyn Jones this week, “so I don’t think it’s as hostile as you like to make out.”
The Welsh secondrow was reacting to a pestering question about residue from the Lions tour rearing its head in Dublin. The levels of vitriol spat from the Lansdowne roar this afternoon will measure the hostility.
Or maybe not.
Last Thursday night in the back bar of O’Brien’s on Leeson Street, some elderly Welsh choir boys broke into song. Their version of Molly Malone was spine-tinglingly good.
It was a reminder that this ancient rivalry will outlast Warren Gatland, Brian O’Driscoll and all of us in attendance for the latest instalment. But still this weekend it matters a little more than usual.
Irish people mine a perceived sleight better than most. That Gatland removed O’Driscoll from his squad for the third test against the discombobulated Wallabies, despite doubts over Manu Tuilagi’s fitness, fractured our national sporting psyche.
Undress the hype any way you please but in the summer of 2013 Gatland made these decisions. They can never be undone. But they will be re-examined today.
Defenders of the coach’s decisions point blindly to the series victory but these decisions certainly didn’t hinder his chances of getting a new long-term contract as Wales head coach. Even O’Driscoll went on the offensive on Twitter this week in an attempt to dilute the hype. He didn’t like a headline.
“It’s all very well people within the camp saying ‘it doesn’t really affect us,’ but it will and it does,” said former Welsh and current Gloucester coach Nigel Davies. “It will be a factor.”
Even with Jonathan Davies recuperating from injury, the decision to field the Welsh midfield, when Jamie Roberts returned, against Australia is still seen as an unwarranted smear on the legacy of Ireland’s greatest ever player.
Gatland has enjoyed many fruitful years coaching in this country and decided to appear on The Late, Late Show a few months ago. The “win the mammys over and the rest will follow” defence. Again, the crowd will tell you if it worked.
“I think a backrow is all about combinations and for me, Seán’s inclusion [when Sam Warburton was injured] was a big thing as he was an essential ball carrier. I didn’t think Faletau had had a good tour, while Jamie did, but after the second test heads had to roll.”
So, to the other decisions. Fullback is a good place to start. Rob Kearney arrived on tour with a hamstring strain, never getting near the test team due to Leigh Halfpenny’s metronomic place-kicking.
“When you look at the Lions you see a typical Warren selection,” Davies explained, “which has always been about having big, physical guys, particularly in the backs.
“The Welsh backline is the biggest we’ve ever seen in the history of the game. In Australia a really big backline also allowed him to pick a footballing 15 like Leigh Halfpenny. If Australia had had Leigh Halfpenny they would have won the series. It’s as simple as that.”
Still, in this same fixture in 2012 it didn’t take Jonathan Sexton long to hoist a Garryowen that Kearney caught over Halfpenny, rolling down his back as the Irish forwards – alas, Stephen Ferris was first in – thundered through.
Ferris and O’Brien may be stolen from public view – not that the Welsh had many problems with them at the 2011 World Cup – but Peter O’Mahony is doing a decent job of filling that gaping hole.
“Dan Lydiate is absolutely vital to Wales with the amount of tackles he makes,” says O’Kelly, “but the battle for supremacy against Scotland was on the ground and, along with Henry, O’Mahony was instrumental. On form I would prefer O’Mahony in my team.”
In theory the frontrow debate should edge towards the all-Lions Welsh trio of Jenkins, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones.
“The Irish frontrow by a mile,” said Ireland’s 92-times capped lock. “I just love watching these guys. Cian and Rory are phenomenal players around the park, with what they contribute.”
Davies concurs: “The Osprey pack have suffered a little this year with the new laws.”
So Healy can hurt Adam Jones? “Yeah, I think so. He really is a special player, Cian. Each year he gets better and better.”
Lock cancels itself out. Despite Davies’ Gloucester side being ruptured by O’Connell last month, Wyn Jones is seen as equally valuable to the Welsh cause. O’Kelly agrees.
But on the bench Wales have a major advantage. “I’ve watched Justin (Tipuric) for a long time,” said Davies. “He is a special player. He could play equally well at centre, as we saw against England last year when the game broke up.”
There was a time when two scrappy little nines would nip away at each other – Lions lovers will remember Robert Jones and Nick Farr Jones doing just that – but not any more. Both weighing in around the 100kg mark, Conor Murray is a Mike Philips clone without the disciplinary record. Davies feels there might be blood.
“There will be a little bit of niggle there. They look similar physically and will be looking to dominate each other. Mike is very confrontational, he tries to intimidate but I don’t think Conor will take a backward step.”
Rhys Priestland was injured for most of last year so Sexton had a clean run into the Lions 10 jersey. Fit again, the subtle excellence of Priestland’s game was evident against Italy, be it gliding through forwards or a delicious grubber down the right tramline for Alex Cuthbert try. Sexton’s presence was also felt as he opened the Scottish defence to remove the cobwebs from Ireland’s lethargic opening half hour.
“Warren can go for the luxury of Rhys over Dan Biggar because he has Leigh as his consistent goal kicker. What Rhys is able to do is move those big backs by squaring the first defender, holding up the defensive line and creating holes for the big guys.”
Ah yes, the big guys.
Fergus McFadden won’t have forgotten what George North did to him in 2012 nor Donncha O’Callaghan the treatment meted out by Jamie Roberts in the opening seconds of the 2011 world cup quarter-final. All legal, all power plays.
“It is all about the gainline, isn’t it? It is a pretty simple game plan. If you can stop them guys, Wales look very ordinary. It’s about getting off the line quickly.”
Or to use Gordon D’Arcy’s quote: “Everybody is the same height around the ankles.”
Anyway, Wyn Jones is correct. This is not Syria. This is Dublin. And while it feels like the Lions are visiting, O’Kelly doesn’t believe Ireland will use that in a conscious way.
“I can’t imagine Joe Schmidt going ‘They took your spot on the Lions.’ I think they are going to be slightly more high brow than that. A little more technical. There might be something subconscious but if you are bitter about something like that then you hold it, keep it very much to yourself.”
And unleash it with your actions.