'This is the right rugby decision' - Warren Gatland
Coach defends axing of O'Driscoll in biggest call of his Lions career
Published 04/07/2013 | 05:00
The Lions coach has made six changes in personnel from the team that lost the second Test and one positional switch. The jettisoning of O'Driscoll is the most controversial one, closely followed by the culling of his successor as Ireland captain, Jamie Heaslip.
Gatland brushed off the suggestion that the decision to dispense with O'Driscoll was a hard one – "it's only hard because you're making the decision with your head and not your heart" – but his words had a hollow sound to them.
His suggestion that it will be "a 48-hour story" was hugely disingenuous.
On a tour where injury has already claimed the 2009 Lions captain (Paul O'Connell) and the 2013 captain (Sam Warburton), Gatland has chosen to take to the field without the most decorated and experienced (134 Ireland caps) warrior left at his disposal.
It is a monumental risk and is one all the more damning when you consider that Gatland has put his faith in 10 Welsh players who have failed to beat Australia the last eight times they have faced them wearing Wales' red uniform.
He tried to laugh off the suggestion – "well, they beat them in first Test didn't they?" – but conveniently overlooked the presence of O'Connell, O'Driscoll and Heaslip that day as well as England's Tom Croft and Tom Youngs.
This is the biggest selection call of Gatland's Lions career – including his involvement as assistant to Ian McGeechan in 2009 – and he has taken an enormous and reckless gamble.
Of course, if the Lions win the game and the series, he will be hailed an oracle. But should the Lions lose on Saturday, every call Gatland has made since announcing the original touring party on April 30 will be questioned.
Gatland believes he has made the right call and one that is removed from the politics that are inherent on tours of this nature that bring together players from four different nations.
"If I go back to the UK after this saying 'did I make the decision because I believed it was the right decision?' or 'did I make the decision because it was the right political decision or the one with sentiment?' I can put my hand on my heart and say it's the right rugby decision," he stated.
It shouldn't be forgotten the Lions were within one converted penalty of losing that first Test despite Australia being decimated by injury during the game and leaving 14 points behind.
It is hard to believe the dropping of a player of O'Driscoll's ability, presence and experience doesn't play into Australia's hands, especially as they have the momentum of the second Test win and the emotional boost of the James Horwill episode.
Privately, the Wallaby camp was stunned and delighted when the team was made public. O'Driscoll is one of the few Lions players the Australians truly fear.
Gatland has a slightly different viewpoint and believes the effort it took the Wallabies to win the second Test will count against them on Saturday.
"It was a one-point game last week and they were absolutely desperate," he said. "The question for Australia is, can they get themselves emotionally up for this game. I'm not sure they can.
"I've been involved in teams before and seen how massive emotion can play in terms of results. I can go back to 2005 when I was coaching Wasps against Leicester.
"We played the last game of the round, Neil Back and Martin Johnson's last game at Welford Road and I completely underestimated the emotion of those two players playing their last game at home and Wasps were well beaten.
"Two weeks later in the Premiership final, they couldn't bring the same emotion and we put 40 points on them.
"So it's hard to get yourself completely on the edge every week and I think that had to be it last week, when you saw the reaction of James Horwill after the game and what it meant.
"We're disappointed and we think emotionally we can improve for it but there's a question whether they can do the same thing," he added.
Gatland has entrusted the quest for improvement to the Welsh players he has worked with over number of seasons. The distinctly Welsh influence is extended to the captaincy, which he handed to Alun-Wyn Jones.
The lock has been enjoying an excellent tour and he has experience of captaining the Ospreys but his only time to captain Wales was back in 2009 against Italy under Gatland.
Alex Corbisiero returns at prop and Richard Hibbard starts his first Test at hooker. Ireland's Sean O'Brien is included at openside flanker with Toby Faletau ousting Jamie Heaslip at the base of the scrum.