The Lions went into the first test with a side containing not only this year's tour captain but the two preceding tour captains as well, in what was a first of its kind in Lions' history. But they will go into Saturday's decisive third test in Sydney with none of the trio after Warren Gatland and his four fellow coaches decided to drop Brian O'Driscoll on foot of losing Paul O'Connell and Sam Warburton to injury.
It is the first time O'Driscoll has been dropped in 15 years as a professional rugby player with Leinster, Ireland or the Lions.
Alun Wyn Jones will thus become the tour's sixth captain in ten matches, with Gatland and company accommodating the return of fit-again Jamie Roberts by reverting Jonathan Davies to outside centre in the front-line Welsh midfield pairing to the exclusion of O'Driscoll.
There is not even a place for O’Driscoll on the bench, with Manu Tuilagi preferred there. O’Driscoll was taken aside and informed of the decision before it was announced to the rest of the squad.
“Obviously, he was disappointed, as anyone is, but he appreciated the fact that he was spoken to before the announcement,” said Gatland.
“It’s the first time that any coach has had that decision with him in 15 years of rugby. It’s not easy for that to be the first time, but he’s still going to be very important for us for the next 72 hours in terms of his experience and leadership. He’s been involved in the first two Tests, but Jamie’s back fit and Jamie’s been given the nod in terms of that partnership of Jamie and Jon Davies in the midfield.
“It wasn’t about leadership – it was about picking what we felt was the best team. We did that, and then we went through and the next question was who we felt could do the best job in terms of captaining. Alun Wyn gets his opportunity on Saturday. There were a number of candidates but it wasn’t about picking a captain first, it was about picking what we felt was the best team first.”
Following the decision, a disappointed O’Driscoll posted a message on Twitter. “Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through,” he wrote.
The Lions have made another five changes, with O’Driscoll’s successor as Irish captain, Jamie Heaslip, also making way for Toby Faletau, who packs down alongside Seán O’Brien, the replacement for the hamstrung Warburton.
Alex Corbisiero returns from injury to pack down at loose-head, with Mako Vunipola reverting to the bench, and Richard Hibbard is promoted ahead of Tom Youngs to further beef up the pack.
Mike Phillips is also restored at scrum-half, with Conor Murray retaining his place ahead of Ben Youngs, who started last week's second test. Richie Gray and Justin Tipuric are, surprisingly, both promoted to the bench, to the exclusion of Tom Croft as well as Heaslip, meaning that another three players have been promoted to the bench and are in line for their Lions test debuts.
The net effect is that there ten Welshmen in the starting line-up, equalling the record from the Red Dragonhood in a starting Lions test team dating back to the first test here in 1950. (The all-time record is 12 Englishmen, back in the 19th century).
Whereas the Wallabies have been comparatively settled, making just two changes to their starting line-up for the second test and not expected to make more than one more for the third (with George Smith heavily touted to start) pending their announcement later today, the Lions have made six changes in addition to the five for the second test.
“We’ve been together for a few weeks now,” said Gatland. “There were a few injuries last week, we were forced to make a few changes through injury. There’s been a lot of competition within the squad, past selections have been tough with tight calls. The changes we have made, we think are going to strengthen the team for this Saturday.”
As regards promoting Faletau ahead of Heaslip, Gatland there was “a little bit of” freshening up in mind. “Toby’s been unlucky, he’s played well on tour. It was a tight call in the first few games and he gets an opportunity to come in on Saturday. It’s going to be another tough, physical encounter, as it was in Melbourne last week.”
On their choice of Alun Wyn Jones as captain, the Lions head coach said: “He leads from the front. He’s been outstanding in the lead up games and was one of the first names on the sheet when he picked the team for the first Test, the first two Tests. He’ll go and lead by example. There’s a little bit of pressure taken off him with the fact that Geoff Parling will be calling the lineout, you’ve got leaders in other positions as well, he’ll just be an important part of that engine room that needs to fire for us on Saturday, particularly at tight five and Alun Wyn’s a big part of that.”
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales) 14. Tommy Bowe (Ulster/Ireland) 13. Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales) 12. Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales) 11. George North (Scarlets/Wales) 10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland) 9. Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales) 1. Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England) 2. Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales) 3. Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales) 4. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales) (Captain) 5. Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England) 6. Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales) 7. Sean O’Brien (Leinster/Ireland) 8. Tangaki Taulupe Faletau (Dragons/Wales)
16. Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England) 17. Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England) 18. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England) 19. Richie Gray (Scotland) 20. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales) 21. Conor Murray (Munster/Ireland) 22. Owen Farrell (Saracens/England) 23. Manusamoa Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers/England)