Sport is rarely sentimental; Gatland never is as he drops O’Driscoll for the first time in his career.
Brian O’Driscoll’s anguish after the final whistle in Saturday’s 16-15 defeat in the 2nd Lions Test in Melbourne has been further compounded as Gatland drops him for the deciding test on Saturday in Sydney. Gatland’s decision to omit O’Driscoll from the 23 man squad was announced in the Irish am and this country awoke to the news that their heroes’ Lions career had ended ignominiously.
O’Driscoll’s rugby resume is peerless. One Grand Slam, three triple crowns and multiple Heineken cups in a career that started against Australia in 1999; ironically he was selected for that debut by then Ireland coach Warren Gatland. He is undoubtedly Ireland’s greatest warrior amassing 125 Irish international caps in green and he’s still not out.
O’Driscoll’s longevity has allowed him to tour four times with the Lions during the professional era. This is an unprecedented achievement. Twelve years on from that happy-to-tour Lion-cub who seized his opportunity and announced himself to the world with his dazzling 1st Test try only to see the Wallabies wrestle the series back over the next two Tests he is only interested in winning a test series this time around. Saturday was meant to be his 7th and final Lions’ Test and his shot at redemption.
With Tour Captain Sam Warburton ruled out of contention with a hamstring tear, O’Driscoll looked poised to lead the Lions into battle in the Sydney in what would’ve been the perfect sporting script. Alas it is not to be as a dozen years after the 2001 series defeat in Australia his Lions’ playing career ends with him watching from the stands in a suit.
To shed the Irish bias, one must look at O’Driscoll’s two Test performances as a microcosm of the under-performing Lions. He has been monumental in defence – he has not missed a tackle in the Test series – but in attack he has offered very little over the last two Saturdays.
In the first test his immense impact at the breakdown was rendered useless by the referee’s interpretation. He was pinged for two penalties early in the game and couldn’t compete from then on for fear of getting a sin-binning. In the second Test he was dogged at the breakdown and put in some monstrous hits but with ball in hand he was wasteful. He threw an intercept forward pass to Australia’s Folau in one attacking play and in the crucial last twenty minutes he kicked the ball back to the Wallabies far too loosely allowing them to counter and pile on the pressure, which inevitably told.
The Lions have been great in defence but they have been lacking in attack, so has O’Driscoll. Ultimately this is what has cost him his place. However, he is the consummate team player and as the fallout registers on the social media Richter scale he will already have turned his attention to imparting his defensive guile onto Johnathon Davies who wears 13 on Saturday. Davies has been exposed defensively already on this tour and he will be targeted by the Aussies.
Irish captain Jamie Heaslip was also dropped completely from the squad, but it’s gone almost unnoticed. This is perhaps even more baffling than the O’Driscoll decision. Heaslip has come into form in the latter part of the season, after much criticism during the 6 Nations, and shone throughout the Tour. He would’ve been the pack leader but instead he is replaced by Toby Faletau. In saying that O’Driscoll and Heaslip had their chance to close out the series in the 2nd Test and they didn’t take it. Gatland has reverted to the Welsh combinations that have come through for him on the biggest stages in the past. If Warburton was available he would’ve gone for a complete Welsh backrow. Instead he has picked the dynamic Sean O’Brien. If the Lions are to win it is vital that O’Brien, Faletau and Jamie Roberts get over the gainline and provide an attacking platform that the Lions simply haven’t had in the first two Tests. If Phillips has good ball this will allow him to feed Sexton who will look to bring Tommy Bowe and George North into the game. North is the Lions most dangerous player but we’ve only seen one glimpse of what he is capable of doing so far. It is vital that his team work him into the game on Saturday.
Johnathon Sexton highlighted the fact that the Lions still have a chance to right the wrongs of last week. Their narrow 1st Test win afforded them two shots at glory. This week is the same as last week; they are still one win away from taking the series. In that sense nothing has changed in defeat.
The Wallabies will be delighted by the fervor caused by Gatland’s selection. They played the rugby last week and deserved the victory. James Horwill’s tears of joy were in stark contrast to O’Driscoll’s face of dismay after the game. The Wallaby Captain has been put through a bizarre and unprecedented citing limbo since the first Test but now that he has justly been cleared to play he can lead his team out on Saturday. If Horwill is the heart, and Folau the finisher, then Will Genia is the controls of this Wallaby team. Genia is simply the best player in the world at present. If Dan Lydiate can curtail his influence he will go a long way towards winning this Test and the series for the Lions. However, curtailment and the boot of Leigh Halfpenny weren’t enough to win the series in the first two Tests and they won’t be enough in the third. The Lions will have to play to win and that’s the only way you’d want have it.
The Lions as a traditional concept has survived in the professional era because it morphed into the sports’ biggest cash cow. It is now time it justified its existence on the pitch and not just on balance sheets. To do that the Lions must claim a first Test series victory since ’97 in South Africa.
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) 14. Tommy Bowe (Ireland) 13. Jonathan Davies (Wales) 12. Jamie Roberts (Wales) 11. George North (Wales) 10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) 9. Mike Phillips (Wales) 1. Alex Corbisiero (England) 2. Richard Hibbard (Wales) 3. Adam Jones (Wales) 4. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) (Captain) 5. Geoff Parling (England) 6. Dan Lydiate (Wales) 7. Sean O’Brien (Ireland) 8. Toby Faletau (Wales)
16. Tom Youngs (England) 17. Makovina Vunipola (England) 18. Dan Cole (England) 19. Richie Gray (Scotland) 20. Justin Tipuric (Wales) 21. Conor Murray (Ireland) 22. Owen Farrell (England) 23. Manu Tuilagi (England)