If fortune favours the brave, as the saying says it should, then the Lions should have one hand on whatever trinket it is the sides are playing for this weekend. However, for Irish fans this morning, waking up to the news that Brian O'Driscoll's tour has come to a premature end, the small margin between bravery and foolishness has rarely been so defined.
To reshuffle the Lions back line is not a mistake. No tries were scored in Melbourne and the two the week before were more down to individual brilliance than anything else. Given the close margins involved, that has to be addressed. Whether Gatland's decisions prove to be correct remains to be seen.
Obviously, from an Irish perspective dropping BOD was always going to be controversial. #justiceforbod was trending on Twitter not long after we had spat out our collective Weetabix in shock. But players shouldn't be picked on reputation so this has nothing to do with justice. If Gatland feels other players can do the job better than Brian then he has to make this call, and in years to come our collective outrage will be forgotten and the decision vindicated, if the Lions win this weekend. Clearly though that is the biggest of ifs.
The problems in the backline have in part stemmed from the forwards and a lack of quick and controlled ball. Despite being spoilt for choice, there has been little balance in the back row and while there is another reshuffle this week, that shows little sign of changing. If it does not, then using more direct runners at twelve and thirteen is a plan with some merit. I can only assume this is the thinking behind today's decision.
It's not without risks however as the Lions are now weakened defensively. BOD made 23 tackles in the first two tests, missing none. The importance of that can't be overstated. The other issue is one of leadership. Through injury or selection, Gatland's team is without the Irish captain, the Welsh captain and the tour captain from four years ago. His captain, Alun Wyn Jones, has been passed up for that role with Wales many times. In a close game, strong tackling and forceful leadership can make all the difference.
Like yesterday's call, finite margins are at play and finite margins may well again decide Saturday's test. The gap between Warren Gatland being regarded as a genius tactician or a reckless gambler is narrow but he will become one or the other, based on this match and on this team selection.
Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
There are a lot of bewildered rugby fans in Ireland (and elsewhere) this morning. Before we'd had the chance to blink the sleep from our eyes, there was the news. No BOD. Not even in the 23. Twitter is like group therapy at the moment. There are plenty of (mostly Welsh) Lions fans who will argue that there is no place for sentimentality at this level of sport and that O'Driscoll hasn't been in the greatest of form. And those are fairly reasonable arguments (even if I don't agree), there is one important caveat: Jonathan Davies. The Scarlets centre's most telling contribution in the Test series so far has been getting sucked in to wrong man to give Adam Ashley-Cooper the space to score the decisive try in the second test and I think 'AAC' will be a happy man today.
If there are reasons to drop the Great One then Manu Tuilagi would seem a more coherent pick. The big Samoan is physically capable of things that BOD no longer is. What Manu lacks in subtlety he makes up for in oooommmmpppphhhhh. Instead, Gatland has picked a player with fallible hands who can't get over the gainline. A team that had already lost captain Warburton and O'Connell has now ejected their 'back leader'.
Across the rest of the team, its all out 'Warrenball' for the third test. Most of the changes have an emphasis on bosh; Hibbard, Faletau, O'Brien, Phillips and Roberts. It would have been a travesty if Sean O'Brien didn't start any of the tests but it would have been better to see him hit some open space from blind-side instead of Dan 'Lots-of-Tackles' Lydiate. The return of Corbisiero and Hibbard will shore up the creaky scrum but Tom Youngs has had the best darts on tour and without a back-row jumper, the line-out looks limited.
Australia have had the Lions number tactically so far; denying them good line-out ball, bending Mako Vuinipolo in half and marking Mike Phillips out of it on game one. The Wallabies have been too clever and based on the third test selection, Gatland and co's answer is 'Run Harder'. Shy on leadership and looking regressive tactically, its hard to see the Lions finishing out the job now.
I, like surely all Irish fans, was gobsmacked to learn that Warren Gatland had retained Jonathan Davies, rather than BOD, to play alongside the fit again Jamie Roberts.
From an emotional point of view, I was gutted for the great man. Widely touted as the obvious captain in Warburton’s absence, he was ready to exit the Lions stage in the climactic tour decider in Sydney. Now he will be in the stand, suited and booted alongside his Leinster colleagues, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, who fails to start a test match for the first time in his Lions career.
It is easy to accuse the Lions management of bias, and a number of commentators have questioned the wisdom of having an incumbent national coach as head coach of the Lions, the suggestion being that he has at least half an eye on keeping his national side’s players happy. However, I think that there is method in Gatland’s madness.
Gatland, having been close to beating the Wallabies on 5 of the last 8 encounters he has had in charge of the Welsh side, is looking to put out a team optimised to play his brand of rugby. That involves picking huge slabs of meet to steamroller the opposition. One can only assume that O’Driscoll’s lack of bulk has counted against him. That, and the understanding that Davies and Roberts will have from playing together for Wales.
This is a sound argument, but seems pretty insignificant when compared with what he loses by banishing the great one to the stand of the ANZ stadium. It has been clear from the tour to date that O’Driscoll is one of the two key on-field leaders. The other will be sat next to him with his arm in a cast come Saturday. This leaves the Lions shorn of experienced leaders, a situation exacerbated by the omission of Jamie Heaslip.
O’Driscoll has been the Lions’ top defender making 23 tackles in the first two tests and missing none. By comparison, Davies missed 3, including one that allowed Adam Ashley-Cooper in for the try after he fixated on James O’Connor, rather than drifting to cover AAC, as O’Driscoll had indicated for him to do. Worryingly, Davies was covering the outside channel at that point, so the excuse of his not being in his accustomed position doesn’t wash.
Tuilagi’s inclusion on the bench is interesting. He is essentially the same type of player as Jamie Roberts, and one has to wonder if he is there as cover for the newly qualified doc in case the hammy has not fully recovered. But Tuilagi has had very little rugby on tour after suffering a stinger in his first outing. One feels Zebo would have been a better bet, being able to cover wing and full-back with both Bowe and North relatively comfortable in the centre.
But my biggest beef is with Gatland’s game plan. With two world-class wingers at his disposal, he opts to truck it up the centre and then launch bombs at the Aussie back 3. Apologists will point to the fact that the game-plan came within 5 minutes of winning the first Lions series in 16 years. In reality, it came close because the Aussies lost their kicker in the first minute and played the last quarter of the game with a flanker at inside-centre and a scrum-half on the wing.
The BOD non-selection has over-shadowed the selection of Phillips at scrum-half. I have never been a huge fan of Phillips, mainly because I like my 9s to have a slick pass – everything else is a bonus. But even his most ardent supporters must have been alarmed at how poor he was in the first test. His kicking was abject and gave the chasers no chance at all and he looked listless and bereft, never more so that when jogging after Genia as he broke to put Folau away for his first try. Murray is the form 9 and I would have liked to see him start.
Jamie Heaslip’s omission is also somewhat surprising. He is a class player and has done nothing wrong in the first two tests. More importantly, I thought Gatland was a big fan. In fairness, there is little to choose between Heaslip and Faletau, and it’s probably wise to rotate the squad when the quality is available. That said, Faletau does not have Heaslip’s presence and with the aforementioned lack of leadership, it seems an odd call.
At least I can support one of Gatland’s changes, the inclusion of Sean O’Brien. The Tullow Tank has been the star of the tour, at least as far as the Aussie pundits are concerned. The Lions will benefit from his ability to get across the gain line, not to mention his new found handling skills. His work at the ruck is hugely under-rated and he will go well against either Hooper or Smith, whoever wears the gold number 7 shirt.
Love him or hate him, Gatland has made a brave call, one that could come to define his coaching career. After two tests in which the Lions pack has struggled to produce quality ball for their outstanding backs, Gatland has chosen to address the issue by dropping the best back of his (or perhaps any) generation. Let’s hope it doesn’t backfire.
Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE