Shadowed by one obvious decision, Warren Gatland leads his Lions to Sydney, the scenario apparent: win, enter an elite group of Lions coaches; lose, and be prepared to face an inevitable barrage of criticism.
Brian O’Driscoll’s body language immediately following last Saturday’s late 16-15 defeat by Australia was clear. The test series was there to be won, and how he knew of the opportunity missed.
In hindsight, his now controversial dropping from the test panel could have been predicted from as early as last Saturday. He was unhappy, no doubt. Unhappy about the defeat, obviously. Unhappy about his role within the fifteen, debateable.
O’Driscoll’s story quickly became a social media phenomenon, the talking point of the tour, and something which could rumble on in the months following the tour, with stories from within Lions camp having the potential to be leaked out – as has been the case in the past.
For any rugby fan waking up to the news on Wednesday morning, it would have been hard not to have been angry.
One of the great players of the professional era, dropped entirely out of the matchday squad in favour of a Welshman – one of ten included in the starting XV, and just one of Gatland’s many “tried and trusted” from his time as Wales coach in the years preceding the tour.
Gatland insisted his O’Driscoll conundrum had been one of a “head over heart”.
“Did I make the decision because I believed it was right, or did I make it because it was the right political decision?’ I can put my hand on my heart and say I think it is the right rugby decision,” Gatland was quick to say following his now infamous decision.
All the while, Deans and his Wallabies can only wait – naturally buoyed by O’Driscoll’s omission.
Off-form or not, the former Irish captain had been a regular thorn in the Wallaby side; a player no Aussie midfield looked forward to head into battle against. The coach’s selections and combinations for Saturday will give Deans confidence prior to kick-off, and it is here that Gatland must not allow his game plan to be overrun by a Wallaby outfit that has had the better of said plan on previous occasions.
Following Gatland’s appointment as Lions coach a little under a year ago – and arguably more so after his selection of Sam Warburton as captain amongst an initial number of 15 Welsh tourists – there was always going to be the chance that the coach would name a squad which bore a strong resemblance and spine to that of his recently successful Welsh outfit.
In truth, he could have named ten or more Welsh players in either the first or second tests – both had their own significance. Instead, in opting to “go Welsh” for the third, deciding test – Gatland has naturally made it difficult for itself given what’s at stake.
Ask yourself, would there have been such an outpouring had O’Driscoll not played in one of Brisbane or Melbourne? The answer is clear.
Gatland’s perceived over-reliance raises significant talking points.
In going with this particular approach for Saturday, the coach runs the risk of potentially winning a Lions series in a style that rejects previous Lions successes of old – a style which sees four nations join together in the hope of conquering a southern hemisphere nation in a uniquely-fused way.
Victory on Saturday would be an undoubted success, but an underwhelming one in some people’s eyes.
Regardless of the O’Driscoll situation, there yet remains a test series to be won – and the rugby ‘fans’ who continue to argue, complain, and vent on social media could well do with a reminder; they only have to look at the former captain’s dignified response.
Regardless of the 10 Welshmen starting, this has still been a tour in which all four nations played its part.
Amongst all this, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Australia could have had this particular series wrapped well before any decision on O’Driscoll was made.
Whilst momentum may have shifted slightly in the Wallabies favour since Brisbane, the opportunity to be only the second winning Lions tour since 1989 remains wide open. Amongst all the controversy, whatever way you choose to view the context as a whole remains entirely up to yourself.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas