Rugby winds up the loser in Lions side bereft of Captain Fantastic

If there isn’t room for Brian O’Driscoll this morning then the game has lost something


Warren Gatland’s sporting legacy hangs in the balance this morning. If the Lions lose against Australia, all of his achievements will be overshadowed by his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll. It could haunt him for the rest of his life.

It isn’t particularly fair: the Lions might well lose without O’Driscoll. Through his enforced absence, however, the Irish man becomes more than just a player who performed with typical assuredness in the last two Tests. By not being there, he becomes an amalgamation of the whirling dervish who over 15 years has given moments of improvised genius and uncommon bravery.

O’Driscoll was part of an adventurously youthful selection which Gatland plumped for in that 2000 game against Scotland. Now, Gatland has decided, for reasons he failed to fully articulate on Wednesday last, to unequivocally declare whatever remains of O’Driscoll’s talent is surplus to his requirements for the biggest rugby game of the year.

O’Driscoll has long been recognised as one of the true greats of his sport, which is why Gatland’s decision is such a monumental gamble. Everything he says of his decision is right and true if you are talking about an exceptionally good but ordinary player. But O’Driscoll, even at 34, is out of the ordinary. When Michael Jordan had flu in game six of the NBA finals of 1998, it would have been logical had Phil Jackson benched him. He had a temperature, was fatigued and couldn’t play. But Jordan started because Jackson knew not starting him would be lunacy. And at the end, Jordan nailed what is probably the most famous shot in the history of basketball.

This is not to suggest had O’Driscoll been granted the magical Lions last chapter – captaining the team into a final Test – that he would have somehow recaptured the irrepressible running form of his debut tour. But he is one of those rare players of whom you can’t be sure what they will do. If O’Driscoll’s rugby life has been about anything, it has been to offer his team and fans the possibility that his alacrity of thought or hand or foot can turn a match in an instant. He could produce something not found in coaching manuals drafted by mere mortals.

There is no certainty O’Driscoll would have been able to summon what is best characterised as a form of magic but there was that possibility, that glimmering chance. Now Gatland has closed the book on that – finally and irrevocably as far as the Lions is concerned.

Naturally, the outcry in Ireland has been anguished and general. International commentary has fallen short of outright accusation but sits comfortably between surprise and incredulity. Yes, Clive Woodward did call for O’Driscoll to be dropped from the team but then you think back to the laughable shambles which the Woodward/Alastair Campbell Lions tour of 2005 became and, well . . .

But dropping O’Driscoll begs a bigger question: what is the Lions tour about nowadays? Moreover, hasn’t the Lions always been a bit of a forced love affair for the Irish anyhow? It is a bit like agreeing to go back into the Commonwealth once every four years. The addendum of the “and Irish” still sits a bit uncomfortably. Is there any team in any sport with a more politically correct, long-winded name that is the British and Irish Lions? In the good old bad old days for Irish rugby, Lions tours were just another reason to air a general sense of grievance against the world – particularly for those tours when the Irish were generally overlooked.

Exercise in post-colonialism
For many people, the entire enterprise was permanently tainted by the ever-scandalous decision to omit Simon Geoghegan from the 1993 tour even though he was clearly the most talented player in world rugby. And it was hard not to view the old amateur Lions tours – those majestic, boozy, X-rated Heart of Darkness-type forays which went on for months – as a mad exercise in post-colonialism, with the former masters returning to the Southern Hemisphere citadels – with a few garrulous Celts for back-up – to set the world to rights.

For Irish youngsters who grew up watching the Lions in the amateur era, it was strange, even disturbing, to observe English and Irish men being team-mates. It went against all the anecdotes and the songs and the history lessons. As long as the Lions went on, you could cheer Peter Winterbottom, who looked as if dragged from Sherwood Forest. You could sit back and enjoy watching the silkiness of Jeremy Guscott and you didn’t have to hate Will Carling quite so much.

Even so, there was always a little bit of annoyance at the composition of the Lions strip. Why did the Welsh get the jersey? The English had the white shorts.

And the Scots had the stocking. So where the Emerald Isle? On the tip of the stocking, which you could see if the Lions wore their stockings pulled up, or it wasn’t too muddy. And that only came about because George Beamish kicked up a fuss on the 1930 tour.

Romantic days of amateur rugby
It sometimes seems as if all Lions tours after 1974 have been an attempt to somehow recapture the folklore and character of that side captained by Willie John McBride.

The Irishman’s singular style of captaincy – he was Bligh and Fletcher rolled into one – and the enduring presence of one AJF O’Reilly on the all-time try scorers list has helped to deepen the democratic aspect of the British and Irish Lions.

It could be argued that the series lost its true relevance once the rugby nations devised the world cup in 1987 and the teams from both hemispheres began to play each other more regularly.

In the contemporary era, the Lions tour is a strange beast. It is in part a throwback to the wilder and romantic days of amateur rugby. It is a huge money-spinner and is a deeply-felt personal honour which transcends professionalism and internationalism for the players. Moreover, it is a wonderful platform for a coach to embellish his credentials.

Coaching a winning team is Gatland’s first priority and no one has ever accused the New Zealander of being sentimental.

But there is one final point: the general consensus is that in his selection Gatland is hoping to use his centres to bludgeon a path through the Australian defence.

Maybe it will work. But so what if it does?

If there isn’t room in what is, in the truest sense, a challenge match, for the possibility that one of the most instinctive and imaginative attacking players in the history of the game might just do something special and wonderful; if there isn’t room in a deciding Lions Test in which the 10-year-old kids lucky enough to be there can say that they saw O’Driscoll play; if there isn’t room for a player who almost had his neck broken playing for the Lions and came back as fearless as ever; if there isn’t room for the one player who has proven his remorseless appetite for winning again and again; if there isn’t room for the electric surge his appearance from the bench with 15 minutes to go in a close match would generate around the stadium and through the teams on both sides . . . if there isn’t room on the rugby field for Brian O’Driscoll this morning, then the game itself has lost something.

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