Friday 22 November 2019

Ian O'Doherty: O'Driscoll didn't deserve lame end to Lions career

FIRST Mealamu and Umaga. Now Warren Gatland. When historians look back at O'Driscoll's incredible yet infuriatingly unfulfilled Lions career, they will see Kiwi names as the greatest obstacles our greatest player ever faced in the Red.

That despicable spear on him that day in Christchurch eight years ago remains one of the most cynical and devastating acts we have ever seen on a rugby field and while there is no cynicism in Gatland's decision to omit him from the Test 23, this will surely feel no less devastating for the player.

As you would expect, he accepted the news with his customary dignity and honour and, most of all, strength of character.

Sky Sports opened their bulletin by saying simply: "Oh dear. O'Driscoll is out," which was a rather more friendly use of language than most rugby fans will have spluttered when the news came through.

Because everything was shaping up for this to be his last hurrah – professional sport is cruel, but sometimes the gods look down on you and maybe this was BOD's moment.

And if ever a story looked as if it had been written in the stars, then this was that moment – a Lions legend who had never tasted victory, who had suffered more than most, physically and psychologically, and who had then emerged the stronger to finally lead his team to the holy grail.

That is truly the stuff that small boys' – and grown men's – dreams are made of.

The glowing testimonials, not just from his team mates, but from the opposition say all we need to know about the esteem in which this man is held, and we all know that when it comes to praise and respect, the Aussies are as generous as a bailiff banging at your door.

They not only admired O'Driscoll, they feared him and if you had asked Robbie Deans what would he most like Gatland to do in his selection he would have laughed and said simply: "Drop O'Driscoll."

Because this has not been a team suffering a surplus of leaders and even though this has been a relatively quiet tour for him, he was the guy those around him looked to.

Sure, there was the bizarre hospital pass last Saturday, which was a worrying lapse of concentration.

And the kick into touch when he wrongly thought advantage was still in effect was bitterly frustrating, as were the two early penalties at the breakdown in the first Test, which would have been applauded in the northern hemisphere.

But he has been tireless in his work and tackle rate and even if he hasn't been truly sparkling on this tour, he's hardly unique.

They've been misfiring on too many of their combinations, and the botched lineout late in the game, when Sexton had the chance to emulate Jerry Guscott all those years ago and drop a goal to effectively seal a series, may yet stand as the moment the contest was lost.

Forget about the genuine desire we all had for our greatest player to finally get to savour the one thing that has always eluded him – it would have appeared to make sense, on this occasion of all occasions, to start him as captain.

In fairness, there had been some calls for a complete revamp of the midfield, and Gatland seems as concerned about the role of captain as Capello did when he took the England job.

But that role is so much more important in rugby than football, and Saturday gives us a game which, even by the standards of the code, will see the on-field general more vital than ever.

O'Driscoll's starting berth seemed even more copper-fastened once Paul O'Connell was ruled out.

After all, only a mad man would start the most crucial game of his life, which will define his own coaching career, with a fourth-choice captain, wouldn't he?

Now Alun Wyn Jones finds himself in that spot and you can't help but wonder if a part of the debutant skipper will be cursing his own coach for adding this extra pressure.

The decision to leave him out of the squad altogether was an inevitable consequence of him not starting – because surely he would have been of far more value settling a jittery Lions in what will be a ferocious opening period.

Now the prospect of O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts going full tilt at the Wallabies has been taken away and a great man sees what should have been the crowning moment of his illustrious career lying in the dust of Warren Gatland's apathy.

And while the coach will never have expected to be given the Freedom of Kiely's anyway, he has forever marked himself as one of those pantomime villains of Irish rugby lore.

But a coach lives or dies by his selections and you have to give him credit – if he goes down, he knows he'll have gone down on the basis of his own decisions and you can't ask more from any coach than that.

After all, he can hardly be accused of shirking the tough decisions, regardless of how things stand come Saturday lunchtime.

The rather ambivalent mood here towards the Lions has always been predicated upon the number of players we have in the starting line-up. Never has an omission caused this much true sadness and you know some Irish rugby fans will feel that this has tainted a largely unforgettable tour.

But you know he won't be thinking that – there's a series to be won, and this is elite sport.

That doesn't mean this one doesn't hurt, though.

Irish Independent

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