Friday 22 September 2017

Lions victory unlikely with talisman out

Coach's claim that Davies brings more to side than Leinster leader simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny

Brian O'Driscoll is the central figure as the Lions go through their paces ahead of Saturday’s third and final Test
Brian O'Driscoll is the central figure as the Lions go through their paces ahead of Saturday’s third and final Test
Conor George

Conor George

BRIAN O'DRISCOLL tweet at 3.37pm (6.37am Irish time): "Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through. #seaofred"

CLASS is truly permanent. Brian O'Driscoll put what must have been the most crushing experience of his career behind him to take part in a coaching clinic in Noosa.

Just hours after being told he was being cruelly culled from the team and the squad for Saturday's third, decisive Test against Australia, O'Driscoll joined the others who are not in the Test squad in hosting the coaching clinic.

It must have been agonising for O'Driscoll to have to listen to coach Warren Gatland inform him of his decision. Never in his long and illustrious career has he had to endure such an experience, a fact Gatland alluded to.

"It's harder when you've been the No 1 player in your position for 15 years, when you've been first choice of every team you've been a part of, including every Lions team," said Gatland.

Ironically, Gatland is the man who gave O'Driscoll his first Irish senior cap in 1999 – before he had even played for the Leinster senior side.

It is something the Lions media personnel were keen to highlight when taking issue with any criticism levelled at Gatland for his selection decision.

In hindsight, it is ironic that O'Driscoll, the finest centre of this and any generation, was asked about the possibility of his being dropped for Saturday's game when he fronted to the media at the beginning of the week.

"I won't go chewing my nails off thinking about it, I will go with the flow like everyone else does," he said then. "Hopefully, I will be included in that team. If I am not, I will deal with that if the situation arises."

The suggestion that the Lions would take to the field without O'Driscoll seemed far-fetched at the time and there was no great insight involved in the question that was posed to O'Driscoll. It was simply one of those questions that is always asked after a team loses.

Inevitably, defeat in any sporting competition sparks a response. In this case it has sparked an over-reaction: out with the old, in with the familiar – ie, Welsh players that Gatland and his attack coach Rob Howley are more accustomed to.

The only meaningful response to Saturday's second Test loss from those involved should have been to engage in an honest, objective examination of performance and assessment of decisions made and not made.

Surely had the coaches looked at the video of the game dispassionately, they would have seen that Jonathan Davies was culpable for Adam Ashley-Cooper's match-changing try. That score didn't win the game but it afforded Christian Leali'ifano the chance to do so with the resultant conversion.

TRUST

Davies should have been better positioned to stop Ashley-Cooper but he either didn't trust O'Driscoll to make the tackle on James O'Connor or ignored the call from him.

When O'Connor took possession from Genia and was closed down by O'Driscoll, he had Ashley-Cooper outside him and Joe Tomane, who was covered by Tommy Bowe, outside him again.

Unfortunately for the Lions, Davies was caught ball-watching which afforded Ashley-Cooper just that sliver of light needed and he exposed Davies.

Astonishingly, Gatland referenced Davies' performance against New South Wales – when he was partnered by Roberts and the Lions won without being properly tested (47-17) – as one of the reasons for selecting him ahead of O'Driscoll.

"I thought Jonathan's performance against New South Wales was probably one of the best displays I've seen of him," said Gatland.

He suggested another reason for favouring Davies was a perceived stronger kicking game: "Our kicking game was poor last week. We wanted to put the ball behind them a little bit which we didn't do well enough.

"Jonathan is a left-foot kicking option for us."

Davies' carrying abilities were also generously praised – "he didn't get a lot of ball to go forward but even the couple of carries last week when he did carry, he made a couple of good dents in them" – which gives a clear indication of how the Lions will play on Saturday.

Subtlety won't play much of a part in the game plan and the Lions are pinning their hopes on being able to run over the Australians ... hence the preference for Manu Tuilagi on the bench as Gatland believes he is a potential game-changer.

None of that is comfort to O'Driscoll. Nor indeed for Jamie Heaslip who has also been jettisoned in favour of Welsh No 8 Toby Faletau.

If Faletau wasn't deemed good enough after a tour-high performance against the Brumbies, it is hard to imagine what he has done in the interim to merit a Test debut in the deciding game of the Tour.

The Lions are under pressure. Momentum is with the Wallabies and Gatland has gone back to what he knows.

It is the coach's prerogative, of course, to select the team he deems the best one to succeed where Lions sides have failed for the last three tours.

But, outside of Gatland and his assistant coaches, there aren't many who believe they can bridge that 16-year gap without O'Driscoll.

Irish Independent

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