Graham Boville in Australia
…Or perhaps a better headline would be “Gatland almost blows up internet”
Warren Gatland has named a surprise squad for Saturday’s tour decider in Sydney, with Alun Wyn Jones preferred as captain ahead of O’Driscoll, the seasoned Lion instead slotting back into his preferred position at outside centre…no?
Ok, just checking the squad sheet again…Still can’t see him, must be starting from the bench then…
The most surprising line up since Mumford and Sons headlined Glastonbury sees the head coach make six changes to the side that were narrowly beaten in Melbourne on Saturday, naming a record equalling ten Welshmen in the starting XV alone, at the expense of Brian O’Driscoll.
Prop Alex Corbisiero and hooker Richard Hibbard replace Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs respectively in the front row, the latter two drop down to the bench, while the impressive Sean O’Brien is preferred ahead of Justin Tipuric (who also starts on the bench) at flanker in the place of injured captain Sam Warburton.
Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip and Leicester scrum half Ben Young’s conspicuous absence from the 23-man squad makes way for Welshmen Toby Faletau and Mike Phillips respectively.
The backs combination of Halfpenny, North and Bowe remains unchanged from last week’s narrow defeat, but the major controversy lies with the Gatland’s decision not to even offer O’Driscoll a place on the bench.
The New Zealander has instead opted to start Davies and Roberts as the centre partnership, with Tuilagi as cover. This is an extremely bold, and some may say reckless decision by Gatty, one that, whatever the result on Saturday, is sure to define his Lions tenure.
My major concern regarding this omission is the lack of leadership in our starting XV since losing previous captains O’Connell and Warburton through injury.
This is Brian’s fourth Lions tour, and even though his previous three have proven ultimately unsuccessful, he still offers a wealth of experience and leadership. The last 20 minutes have been key in both tests so far, and it may be then when the younger lads needs a leader to steady the ship, stem the flow, or other maritime metaphors, and without Brian, they have no out-and-out leaders to whom they can turn.
Robbie Deans, it seems, holds the silly notions of experience and leadership in higher regard than his managerial rival, bringing veteran 110 capped flanker, George Smith back into the Wallaby squad for just such reasons, making him the first Australian player to face the Lions on two separate tours since 1967.
Brian handled the news of his rejection in a manner that befits his character, writing on Twitter “Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through #seaofred”.
And with this, the internet as exploded.
People are coming out of the woodwork left right and centre, springing to BOD’s defence, and at the time of writing, the newly created ‘Justice for BOD’ Facebook page has received over 112,000 ‘likes’ in just under 24 hours, so he doesn’t need me as another sympathiser (although I am responsible for one of those likes).
As far as I am concerned, I don’t think any one player is bigger than the team. I mean, Richie Gray comes in at 6”10 so I reckon he probably is, but if we are being honest, Brian hasn’t exactly set the first two tests alight has he?
Gatland said that he used his “head not his heart” in his decision to drop O’Driscoll from the squad. Adding, “When I go back to the UK and say ‘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.”
I don’t think we have any reason not to take him at his word. However, my problem is that once emotion and sentiment is taken out of the equation, as it should be in these situations, Brian has still done enough on merit, for me, to earn a place at the very least in the 23 man squad.
Fair enough, O’Driscoll may not have had his best game last weekend, yeah, who did? But he was solid in defence – an aspect of his game that is so often overlooked. He has yet to miss a tackle against the Wallabies, unlike Jon Davies, the one he missed on Adam Ashley Cooper turning out to be a crucial one, and on review a poor one, given that the Lions were defending three on three at the time.
I don’t agree entirely with legendary former Lions captain Willie John McBride’s assertion that Jamie Roberts isn’t as good as Brian O’Driscoll is, but I believe this to be a moot point, and the two should be starting next to one another, not instead of one another.
Two of the four centres (Tuilagi and Roberts) have also missed a large part of the tour due to injury, the latter in particular has been rushed back very quickly, a fact alone would lead me to include BOD at the very least in the squad (at the absence of Tuilagi) as there are no guarantees that their injuries will not flare up again.
Anyway, this is getting a bit O’Driscoll heavy, so I’ll skip over the fact that he and Jamie Roberts played well together four years ago in South Africa, and begin to wrap up.
Now as an Englishman, when it comes to the Lions, I have no problem on principle with the majority of the squad being welsh, because, as Willie John correctly stated “They’re not Welshmen any longer, they are Lions” – for three weeks anyway, and given their performance in the six nations, it was to be expected that they would feature heavily (although I suppose having Gatland as coach did not hurt either).
I don’t believe that this is the strongest team we could have put out, though, and I think that the athleticism and pace of Tom Croft will too be sorely missed.
The Lions have played their best rugby on the tour, albeit against poor opposition, by sucking in opposite numbers at the breakdown, and recycling quick ball across the backs to expose the gaps left in the defence.
This didn’t happen in the second test, the worrying statistic of zero line breaks stands testament to that. What worries me is that this team seems to be set up to play the same direct play through the forwards, the same back-to-basics style of play that saw us lose in Melbourne.
Furthermore, the forward heavy bench suggests to me that there is no plan B.
Although Tuilagi, at a push, could offer some cover on the wing, if Halfpenny, North or Bowe (the latter two have already sustained injuries on the tour) are forced off the pitch, with no Hogg, Maitland or Cuthbert for cover, that could well be the ballgame.
Hibbard starts ahead of young at number two…fine, I suppose…whatever. The lineout has been a point of constant grief on this tour, but I feel that Tom Youngs, as the lesser of three evils in the lineout (sorry Rory) will feel aggrieved not to be starting.
Perhaps we’ve missed Dylan Hartley after all.
The Wallabies certainly have the momentum going into the final test, and I can’t imagine that facing an O’Driscoll light team will dampen their confidence. Of course, though, games are won on the pitch and not on the team sheet. Here’s hoping that the Lions are able to batter the Wallabies into submission, and here’s hoping that Halfpenny is back to his regular impeccable form, I can’t help but feel we’re really going to need him.
If you’ve made it this far down again, let us know in the comments what you think of Gatland’s squad for the decider. Was he right to drop O’Driscoll? Who would your starting XV be?
Teams for Saturday
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).
Australia: Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels), Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali’ifano (ACT Brumbies), Joe Tomane (Brumbies), James O’Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds – capt), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), George Smith (Brumbies), Wycliff Palu (NSW).
Replacements: Saia Fainga’a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), Sekope Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Ben McCalman (Western Force), Michael Hooper (NSW), Nick Phipps (Rebels), Jesse Mogg (Brumbies).