Thursday 27 July 2017

Comment - Dropping Peter O'Mahony highlights how Warren Gatland is abandoning his most successful tactic

22 June 2017; Peter O'Mahony and British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland during a press conference at QBE Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
22 June 2017; Peter O'Mahony and British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland during a press conference at QBE Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jack O'Toole

It's the 3rd of July 2013, the day Brian O'Driscoll has been dropped for the British & Irish Lions third test in Sydney.

The Lions are tied with Australia at 1-1 as they prepare for the series deciding test at ANZ Stadium. After a gutsy and somewhat fortunate win in the first Test in Brisbane, the Lions crash to a one-point defeat in the second Test in Melbourne with Wallabies centre Adam Ashley-Cooper crossing in the 74th minute to seal a much needed win for the hosts.

With Australia pressing on the Lions try-line, James O'Connor takes the ball to the line and puts Ashley-Cooper through a hole for the match-winning try.

O'Connor is subsequently smashed by O'Driscoll, but he's been afforded just enough time by the former Ireland captain to get on his outside and get a timely ball off to Ashley-Cooper to score.

The Wallabies hold on to win and it's essentially O'Driscoll's final act as a Lion, as just four days later he is one of six to be culled by Lions coach Warren Gatland for the third test.

The Lions, bolstered by 10 Welsh in the starting XV, go on to win the final Test decisively, scoring four tries to one in a comprehensive 41-16 win.

Alun Wyn-Jones and Sam Warburton hoist the Tom Richards Cup after a deserved series win, and while the furore around O'Driscoll's axing is certainly not forgotten, victory tends to vindicate nearly everything in professional sport.

But fast forward four years and O'Driscoll's highly debated omission looks like a routine selection call in comparison to some of the chaos that is unravelling on the 2017 tour of New Zealand:

The high calibre pre-tour omissions in the form of Jonny Gray, Joe Launchbury and England captain Dylan Hartley.

Teasing a Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell 10-12 axis under the thinly veiled umbrella of 'we've got some tricks up our sleeve', but never truly testing that partnership - 30 minutes in a warm-up game aside - until your side is 15 points down, against the world champions, in a stadium that they have not lost in for 23 years.

A constant war of words with New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.

Bringing in a handful of undeserving injury replacements, but then failing to actually give any of those players any meaningful game time, which naturally begs the question, why call them up in the first place?

These issues are just a few examples of the sort of havoc that has stalked the Lions on this tour like a shadow.

Then there's also the small matter of dropping your test captain in Sam Warburton, the man who you've entrusted as your leader throughout your time with both Wales and the Lions, and replacing him with a player in Peter O'Mahony who only started his first game for the Lions three weeks ago.

Experience counts for little when it comes to Lions test selection, you ride the hot hand and you play the best players at your disposal with complete disregard to prior accomplishments, but if you're going to commit to Warburton as your tour captain, then commit to him and stand by your convictions.

Alternatively, if you reach a point where you deem that your tour captain might not actually be deserving of a place in your starting XV, a point that was widely mooted before the Lions even left London's Heathrow Airport last month, and you reach a point where you must announce a new leader, then stick by whomever you appoint as his successor.

Anointing O'Mahony as captain for the first Test and then immediately discarding him from the matchday 23 for the second Test, is not only wildly unsettling to the playing group but it's also a complete diversion from what has brought you success as a coach - standing by your convictions.

Say what you will about Warren Gatland, and evidently there's a lot to be said, but throughout his career he's always been a coach that has stood by his convictions.

Whether it's omitting former England captain Chris Robshaw from the 2013 tour or dropping Brian O'Driscoll for the third Test in Sydney, he's stood by his big calls.

Whether it's leaving current England skipper Dylan Hartley at home or starting last weekend's first Test with 2016 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Maro Itoje on the bench, Gatland has demonstrated throughout his two tours as Lions boss that he's not afraid to make controversial calls.

However, controversy can often flirt a fine line with stupidity, especially in Itoje's case last weekend, but if you're going to fire from the hip then keep shooting until there's nothing left.

Gatland has consistently stopped to reload on this tour and it's having a negative impact on the tour and the playing squad. Calling up the 'geography six' - the unfortunate nickname assigned to reinforcements Kristian Dacey, Cory Hill, Tomas Francis, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell and Allan Dell - was a disservice to the players, the squad and the Lions jersey.

For whatever benefits their additions provided in terms of pragmatism, their arrivals led to widespread criticism that they had 'devalued' the jersey and that they weren't deserving of their place on tour.

Surprisingly, Gatland heeded the criticism from the masses and literally used those players as injury cover. Such was his determination not to 'devalue the jersey' and award a cheap Lions cap, Gatland played the midweek front-row of Dan Cole, Rory Best and Joe Marler for the full 80 minutes in Tuesday's draw with the Hurricanes,  a tactic that is practically unheard of in modern professional rugby.

The 'geography six' and their lack of gametime will be a footnote if the Lions can somehow turn this series around and pull off a miracle by defeating the All Blacks in the next two tests, but removing Warburton as captain and then replacing him as leader with O'Mahony, only to pull the rug from underneath the Munster captain after one Test, shows that Gatland is wavering in his convictions now more than he ever has before.

Throwing the captaincy around like a pair of socks can create unrest at any level of rugby, but when it's before the second test of a must win Lions match, it musters up a tidal wave of uncertainty in the playing ranks.

The unpredictability of how the Lions pack will react to reinstated captain Sam Warburton is only eclipsed by how Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell will combine in the Lions new look 10-12 axis.

The duo were the leading candidates to start alongside each other in the first Test before the tour started, however, they have since played just 76 minutes alongside each other through seven warm-up matches and one Test.

The 10-12 combination is arguably the most pivotal on-field partnership outside of the halves connection and it needs time to develop and prosper.

Farrell and Sexton don't have that time, few of the Lions have had that luxury, such is Gatland's propensity to chop and change. But axing O'Mahony a week after you name him captain is more balls than brains.

Four years ago he was rewarded for a similar decision, this Saturday he'll most likely be castrated for it.

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