The rugby writers are baffled. The ex-players are incensed. Brian O’Driscoll, probably the best centre in World rugby over the last 10-12 years, has been dropped for the 2013 Lions’ final and deciding Test against Australia this Saturday.
This could be the biggest gamble of Warren Gatland’s coaching career. In dropping O’Driscoll, not only has Gatland dropped one of the best players the Northern Hemisphere has ever produced, but he has made it clear that his “Welsh power game” approach will be his chosen tactic on Saturday. In choosing Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies to play in the centre on Saturday, it is clear that Gatland plans to try and batter Australia into submission.
There are ten Welsh players in the starting lineup, which equals a record set back in 1950. Ten Welsh players, and yet Wales have not beaten Australia since Gatland took over coaching Wales in December 2007. Last year (2012) Wales lost to Australia on four successive occasions, although there were only a few points between the two sides in each of the losses. If Gatland’s gamble pays off he will be hailed a hero. If he fails the daggers will be drawn and he will be vilified in the Press.
I should declare that I personally do not agree with the decision to drop O’Driscoll. In reading around the web, I have only managed to find one article supporting the decision, and that is an article in which Gatland defends his decision, saying it is based on his head rather than his heart. To say Gatland is in the minority would be an understatement.
I think, for several reasons, that Gatland has made a mistake. Firstly, this is O’Driscoll’s fourth Lions tour. He has never won a Lions series, and of course in 2005 he was famously spear-tackled in the opening minutes of the first Test, dislocating his shoulder and ruling him out of the rest of the three Test series. In what would almost certainly have been his final Lions appearance, his level of motivation would have been huge.
Secondly, during the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa the centre pairing of O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts was one of the highlights in the Lions’ performances. Roberts won the “player of the tour” award, and this was due in no small measure to the way he and O’Driscoll combined beautifully in the centre. Why did Gatland choose to ignore this in choosing Jonathan Davies over O’Driscoll to partner the now fit again Roberts?
Thirdly, Brian O’Driscoll’s defence is incredible. With Sam Warburton absent through injury, and the Wallabies having George Smith back in their team, the Lions need to play incredibly well at the breakdown. O’Driscoll is not only one of the best tacklers, but he is very good at stealing ball in the tackle. He did not miss a single tackle in the second Test, and his tackle count of twelve tackles was higher than any other back.
Fourthly, O’Driscoll is a leader. He has been captain of Ireland for many years. He has captained the Lions on seven occasions, including one Test. Gatland has chosen to make Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones the captain for Saturday’s Test. Certainly AW Jones has been one of the best performing forwards of the tour. He is also an experienced captain at regional level, but has only captained Wales on one occasion, and has never captained the Lions. I think the Lions will miss O’Driscoll’s leadership qualities on Saturday.
Of course, should the Lions win on Saturday and thus win the series, Gatland’s apparently crazy decision to drop O’Driscoll will be hailed as a master stroke! We shall see……