Lions keen to move on from ‘Wednesday’s’ O’Driscoll story
Rowntree says no injury concerns ahead of final test
Twitter rumours that replacement Lions centre Manu Tuilagi had suffered an injury during training and Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll was in line for a dramatic return to the team he was controversially omitted, have proved to be, well, rumours.
Assistant Lions coach Graham Rowntree said the rumours were “news to me. “We’re all good. Trained well this morning,” he said with a breezy harrumph that set the tone for the remainder of the news conference at North Sydney Oval this morning.
O’Driscoll, he said, had been “exemplary” since being dropped, ending that line of questioning by describing it as “Wednesday’s story”.
Gatland’s decision to drop the Irish centre was met with shock, bemusement and condemnation by players, pundits and supporters.
The two days off in the Queensland resort of Noosa earlier in the week, also criticised by some, were important to allow the team to “switch off” after the second test defeat and had “refreshed” the team, he added.
The Lions are desperate to win the decisive third test against Australia and end 16 years of failed attempts to claim a series victory, he said.
Describing tomorrow’s Olympic Stadium showdown as the biggest moment in the career of every member of the touring party, Rowntree was not about to give an inch in the final few hours of the pre-match psychological battle.
Gone was his normal easy conversational style and the former England prop was all business as he brusquely rebutted any negative stories attaching themselves to the Lions this week.
The record-equalling selection of 10 Welshman in the starting XV was justified on form, he added, and the beefed up pack was “appropriate” for the match - even if the Australians should not read too much into it.
Rowntree continued the tourists’ courtship of the referees over the last two tests, describing Frenchman Romain Poite as “one of the best referees we’ve got up north” and even offering the assistance of his players in officiating the scrum.
He’s known for his set-piece accuracy, so I’m looking forward to working with him tomorrow night,” he said.
“We’ve got a real responsibility to help the referee at scrum time. “Indeed, following on from last week and the week before, all we can do as a group is work on what we’re showing the referee and what we’re doing technically.
“And try to improve that and try to take the referee out of the equation so to speak.”
Hooker Richard Hibbard, brought into the starting line-up for his bulk, later articulated the open secret that the Lions were planning to attack the Wallabies in “the scrum, breakdown and physicality”.
For Rowntree, though, that would have been giving away too much to the enemy, although he was happier to discuss the possible weaknesses in the home side’s preparations.
The surprise recall of flanker George Smith after four years out of test rugby and six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury was a “surprise”, he said, and it would be interesting to see how match-fit the 32-year-old was.
Rowntree also expanded on a theme introduced by head coach Warren Gatland earlier in the week, that the Wallabies had expended a huge amount of emotion in winning last week’s second test in Melbourne to level up the series.
The question, Gatland suggested, was whether they could summon up similar intensity for a second week in a row against a Lions team at desperation point as they bid to win a first test series since 1997.
“I thought we saw the reaction from Australia after they beat us, especially their captain, (James) Horwill, who was crying after the game,” Rowntree said. “They threw everything at us in that game, and beat us by a point. We really didn’t get our game going.
“There’s loads more to come from us. The guys are desperate to win. This is grand final rugby, last throw of the dice. Everything to play for. “These players are desperate for tomorrow.”
Referring to “Wednesday’s story” former Wales and Lions prop Dai Young said je believes the omission of O’Driscoll for the deciding Test in Sydney could have a positive effect on the squad.
Young, a member of the Lions’ travelling party to Australia in 2001 which was beset by off-field issues and inter-squad strife, was keen to play down the significance of O’Driscoll’s absence.
“It shouldn’t be about one man. This is not a decision that Warren would have made lightly. He would have put a lot of thought into it and made it for the right reason and for the rest of the team,” said Young, the director of rugby at Wasps. “He’s achieved more than anyone else in this game by playing the team that he wants.
“I know Brian. He would have been disappointed, the same as anybody, but he will put the team and the squad first. It may galvanise the team as they will want to do it for Brian because he’s a world-class player and he’s well liked.”
Lawrence Dallaglio, another player to have represented the Lions on three separate tours, admitted he was surprised at the furore created by the decision.
“He’s certainly an iconic player and because the selection has ended his Lions career it’s a bit more significant,” Dallaglio said. “But I still couldn’t quite believe how together all the Lions supporters were and now one decision has completely divided them again.”
Dallaglio, speaking at the announcement of the fixtures for the forthcoming Aviva Premiership season, said that the focus should be on the Lions’ problems further up the field, where they have struggled to retain possession.
Last weekend’s late defeat by the Wallabies came after a spell of concerted home pressure which eventually wore down the Lions defence.
“The Lions’ issues are with the forwards, no matter who you pick. They won 35 per cent all at the weekend and you’re going to struggle to win a Test match away from home if you haven’t got enough ball.”
The controversy surrounding Gatland’s team selection for tomorday’s game was not restricted to O’Driscoll’s omission, though.
Ten Welshmen will start at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney but Dallaglio, a former England captain, refused to read too much into that.
“Each one of those players isn’t putting on a Welsh jersey, he’s putting on a British and Irish Lions jersey. They’ve picked the best people available to them - it just so happens that 10 of them play for Wales,” Dallaglio said, before joking: “It’s certainly upped the ante for the Ireland-Wales Test next season.”