Sean O’Brien decision could be the boost that drives Lions to victory

Tullow Tank’s presence in final Test means Gatland can retain victorious back-row

Sean O’Brien arriving at a judicial hearing at the New Zealand Rugby offices in Wellington on Sunday. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Sean O’Brien arriving at a judicial hearing at the New Zealand Rugby offices in Wellington on Sunday. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

 

Had Sean O’Brien been suspended for the third Test it would undoubtedly have been a game changer in favour of the All Blacks. Hereabouts, they respect the Tullow Tank hugely, so his guaranteed presence for the Lions in Eden Park in next Saturday’s series decider in Eden Park is now a further boost for the tourists after last Saturday’s dramatic 24-21 win in the second test in Wellington.

That Warren Gatland remained in Wellington to attend the hearing along with the Lions legal representative Max Duthie, who fulfilled this brief in Australia four years ago and was here for the second Test, as well as team manager John Spencer underlines the importance of the ruling.

The Citing Commissioner Scott Nowland of Australia had said the incident, in the 59th minute of the second half, was deemed to have met the threshold for a red card.

However, O’Brien denied he committed an offence under Law 10.4(a), and a statement on behalf of New Zealand rugby stated: “Having conducted a detailed review of all the evidence available, including all video footage and additional evidence from the player and submissions from his legal representative Max Duthie, the Independent Judicial Committee comprising Adam Casselden SC (Chair), David Croft (Ex-Australian and Queensland Reds player) and John Langford (Ex-Australian, Brumbies and Munster player) dismissed the citing complaint.”

Rejoining the squad

The Lions issued a statement in which O’Brien was quoted as saying: “Firstly, I hope Waisake is okay. I’d like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case and I am looking forward to rejoining the whole squad to prepare for the final Test.”

Gatland said: “We’d like to thank the panel for their professional and diligent approach. Sean is a tough but fair player and we are pleased that the panel dismissed the citing.”

It means Gatland is not compelled to re-jig the Lions back-row of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and O’Brien, for the series decider, which will now almost certainly be retained en bloc.

For their part, the All Blacks have lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty through injury, and now Sonny Bill Williams through suspension for four weeks, after the disciplinary hearing into his red card for last Saturday’s dangerous and reckless shoulder hit into the head of Anthony Watson led to a four-week ban.

The events of the last two days will give a further edge to Saturday’s finale, but as the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen put it: “You’ve got two quality sides, you’d have to be silly to think that we’re all going to go there and be nice. This is a physical game and one of the reasons why we love rugby, and why you guys as journalists love it, I assume, tell me if I’m wrong, is because of the varying natures of the game.

“And one of those natures is the brutality, the intensity that comes with it. You know, you are asking people to be warriors, within the law, and that’s what’s happening. Is some of it close? Yea. But it always is. There’s not a genuine Test match that doesn’t challenge you physically, that doesn’t challenge you mentally. It’s great for rugby, and it’s great for this team of ours. We’re having to learn, as a young team, how to cope with that. So it’s good.”

Training load

For his part, Gatland can now begin to look toward to the selection for the third Test. They had lightened the Lions’ training load last week, and will allow them two days off in Queenstown, admitting that after reviewing the first Test they felt the Lions forwards looked “a bit heavy-legged.”

While the Lions may have poked the bear, Gatland also believes there is room for further improvement, as there will undoubtedly need to be if they are to become only the second Lions’ squad in history, and first since 1971, to win a Test series in New Zealand.

“There were,” he admitted, a lot of things he “wasn’t happy about” in last Saturday’s second test win, notably the “stupid and soft penalties,” adding: “Key players were guilty of that. That needs to improve. Our kicking game needs to be more accurate.

“The ironic thing is this is the best team in the world and, for two Test matches, they (New Zealand) really haven’t stressed us. They have squeezed us, made us give away penalties and that has been to our downfall, but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby that the All Blacks are known for and creating havoc.

“We’ve coped with that and if we can continue to cope with that and improve in other areas, then we are going to see, hopefully, a great Test match. Yes, we have poked the bear, but hopefully the wounded Lion from last week is still recovering as well.”

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