Monday 25 September 2017

Rachael Wyse: Gatland will need to have his excuses ready

Warren Gatland's decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll means his centre partnership will be under increased scrutiny against Australia
Warren Gatland's decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll means his centre partnership will be under increased scrutiny against Australia

Rachael Wyse

It is often said that desperate men do desperate things. I sense this week that Lions coach Warren Gatland knows the feeling all too well. He has the look of a desperate man and many are of the opinion that his team selection, particularly the axing of Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll, befits such a description.

For rugby fans on this island Gatland's decision is regretful as, rightly or wrongly, it taints the final Test. We are all aware the Lions represent a combined force but human nature draws us to the plight of our fellow countrymen.

O'Driscoll is one of us, a man that has represented his country with huge distinction and given its people some unforgettable memories. He has served us well and in return we want nothing but the best for him.

Exclusion from today's game is a sad ending to a remarkable Lions career. Unfortunately, Test match rugby has scant regard for sentiment. Gatland and his staff are all about winning a Test match, personal feelings and headlines over the exclusion of a legendary player approaching the end of his career are irrelevant.

Gatland must get what he believes to be the best 15 players on the pitch. As coach it is his prerogative to choose those he deems best suited for the challenge – he will live or die by those choices. He will know what to expect should the Lions lose in Melbourne.

FAMILIAR

Is his decision the right call at this stage? By lunchtime we will have our answer. As a centre combination, Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are certainly more familiar with each other's game and perhaps their strength as a combined force will compensate for the loss of a potential moment of magic from O'Driscoll.

Gatland clearly believes the Welsh combination will be more effective under his game plan. And if there was any doubt previously, the inclusion of 10 Welshmen in the side confirms Gatland's modus operandi. The Welsh have the greater number of talented players to offer a Lions side but it would appear Gatland has made little effort to deviate from a Welsh game plan and even less effort to integrate non-Welsh personnel into his approach.

O'Driscoll has suffered at the hands of this approach and with so much riding on the last game Gatland's thinking was never going to change. To drop one of the game's greatest centres before such a high-pressure match is either very brave or very stupid. We will know soon enough.

On the cusp of the final Test of a tied series, fans everywhere are in dreamland. These are the games that distinguish a Lions tour; this is the territory where reality gives players an opportunity to live up to the myth. Players can become legends and years from now mention of their name will conjure up glorious images.

This is an opportunity afforded to few. Nothing but the very best will suffice from here on. Men like Willie John McBride, JPR Williams, Mike Gibson, Martin Johnson, Andy Irvine and Jeremy Guscott give some idea of the calibre required to successfully complete the task faced by the Lions.

Bereft of crucial experience they go to war without Paul O'Connell, O'Driscoll and their captain Sam Warburton. The outfit is now largely a Welsh selection with Jonny Sexton at No 10 and you wonder does it have the look of a series-winning team? On the evidence thus far, I am sceptical.

Most observers would probably agree that had Australia's goal-kickers been in reasonable form from the start then today's match would be a dead rubber. And while it took a try late in the day for Australia to claim victory in the second Test, match statistics reveal they had 67pc possession and it took heroic defending by the Lions to keep them at bay.

Without O'Driscoll's defensive skills can they hold out if they come under the same scrutiny again today? Have the Lions the personnel to play this game on the front foot and be an offensive force? Have Gatland's team displayed the imagination and flair needed to win a Lions series?

Victory, when the stakes are so high, requires something extraordinary. Looking at the coach and his selections, it is difficult to envisage where that will manifest itself. Former Australian great David Campese greeted Gatland's team via Twitter by saying: "Sorry but you have just handed the series to Australia. 7 changes and still no real match winner."

In this case it is hard not to disagree. Australia appear to be improving with each game and in a high-pressure situation, with the series on the line last week, they produced the goods. This is a trait of outstanding teams and although Australia may not be brilliant yet they are heading in that direction.

Few gave them a chance coming into the series but they have made things happen in the face of adversity. Now with increased confidence and belief they face a Lions outfit scrambling for ground. Gatland knows it and his seven changes is acknowledgement of that.

To compound the Lions' task, Australia welcome back legendary flanker George Smith, who has not played for his country in almost four years. Smith has massive experience with 110 caps and coach Robbie Deans believes the combination of "fresh legs and experience" will give his side an edge this weekend. Eddie Jones, the former Wallabies coach, says Smith's inclusion would provide a multi-fold boost for Deans' side.

WINNERS

"Every team he's gone to he's made winners and there is no coincidence there, his impact on a group cannot be measured," Jones said. "They know he is tough and courageous and plays 100pc for the team. The other guys will really lift playing with him."

In this column two weeks ago I expressed an opinion that despite having an apparent advantage in every sector I believed the Lions would struggle to beat an Australian team on their home patch. On that occasion, Australia's poor kicking presented the Lions with a fortunate victory.

Two weeks on, much has changed and the Lions' prospects look a whole lot bleaker. Some of it has been misfortune, more has been of their own doing. I expect Australia to win today and by the most decisive margin of victory in the series. Excuses at the ready please, Mr Gatland, I have a feeling you are going to need them.

Irish Independent

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