Warren Gatland stands over his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll for Sydney decider
“I have to put hand on my heart and say it’s the right rugby decision”
Brian O’Driscoll had the courtesy of being informed prior to the squad hearing the formal team announcement for the third Test. It’s a courtesy not afforded many, but he deserved that much. It won’t have made the news any easier to take, and one imagines it can’t have been a pleasant experience for the coach who granted O’Driscoll his first Test start here in Australia 14 summers go to effectively end his Lions’ career.
Much more forthcoming to a group of newspaper journalists than he had been in front of the cameras ten or 15 minutes earlier, and no doubt fully cognisant of the bombshell he had just dropped, Gatland admitted: “It’s only hard because you are making the decision by using your head and not your heart. Then you realise that what comes of making a decision like that is all the peripheral stuff; not the rugby decision, because it becomes a major story for 48 hours and it becomes a debate.
“That is the process I’ve gone through myself. If I go back to the UK after this and say ‘Did I make the decision because I believe it’s the right decision or did I make the decision because it was the right political decision or sentiment?’ I have to put hand on my heart and say it’s the right rugby decision.”
Gatland has again shown he is not afraid to make tough or unpopular calls. It was put to him that sentiment doesn’t play a part. “That’s why it was a big part of the thought process to go back and say, I would hate to think we had made calls on trying to avoid criticism or public favour or perception. Public popularity I suppose.”
In a similar context, having ended O’Driscoll’s Lions’ playing career, Gatland said: “He has been a big part of the story. He played in the first two Tests . . . He is obviously very, very disappointed as any player would be but it’s like everything, it’s a learning process.”
“It’s kind of hard when you’ve been the number one in your position for so long, for 15 years, and first choice on every team you’ve been a part of, and on every Lions team you’ve been the first choice as well.
“There have been a lot of people under him who have experienced the disappointment of Brian O’Driscoll always being selected over them. It’s just part of sport, isn’t it? Sometimes it happens and we’ve made a really tough decision, a tough call and that’s part of it.”
Given the Lions have lost one former captain, as well as their current one, to voluntarily sacrifice their other former captain really does look careless, and at any rate leaves a gaping void in proven leaders. But when asking him if he was concerned about this Gatland said: “I don’t see it as an issue at all. Alun Wyn Jones has captained his club side a lot, he has captained Wales in the past. We went and picked what we thought was the best team.
“That was the first process, to pick the team that we think can take the field and do the job, and right, who afterwards do we think can captain the side and do the job? When the five of us went around after we had picked the side, there were different opinions on potentially who could do it but the consensus in the end was that Alun Wyn was the best choice.”
Asked if captaincy was over-rated, Gatland simply said “yeah” and asked if he had shocked O’Driscoll with the news, he said: “He’s been around for a long time. He understands how things work. He’s a professional and he appreciated the fact we had the conversation with him. He’s disappointed and you would expect that. It’s not everyone we always speak to, but he was one that definitely needed the respect of being spoken to.”
As to what Jonathan Davies might bring to the party more than O’Driscoll, Gatland ventured: “I thought Jonathan’s performance against New South Wales was probably one of the best displays I’ve seen him perform. Our kicking game was poor last week. We wanted to put the ball behind them a little bit which we didn’t do well enough.
“He’s a left-foot kicking option for us. He didn’t get a lot of ball to go forward but even the couple of carries last week when he did carry, he made a couple of good dents in them.”
Dropping Jamie Heaslip after a run of five successive Lions Tests in favour of Toby Faletau almost went unnoticed, but not quite, and having extolled Faletau’s hard work on tour, Gatland added: “We just feel when the platform up front is really good for Jamie he can play a little bit looser, he carries well.
“Sometimes he needs to be prepared to play a little bit tighter in this game and hopefully Toby will give us that on Saturday.” Not many coaches have questioned Heaslip’s nitty-gritty workload before.
The outrage wasn’t confined to the Irish yesterday. Michael Cheika, admittedly O’Driscoll’s coach for five years at Leinster, was almost incandescent in his reaction to the news.
“Obviously I’m very surprised. I was figuring he would have been captain. I felt he should have been captain for the tour anyway. I thought he would have been the captain and the talisman in the quest for victory because the guy is a match-winner in himself, and he’s a winner from the inside out. No question,” Cheika told The Irish Times.
“It’s not a form issue because you can’t say that Jamie Roberts or Jonathan Davies have been playing better than him on the tour. The consensus in Australia is how good he has been playing. In the second Test he didn’t get a lot of opportunities, but his work on the ground and in defence . . . in a cauldron where you need leaders to stand up at the front, Brian O’Driscoll has been the number one man. Mate, the only people who are going to be happy about this are the Australian side.”