Sunday 25 February 2018

Why Gatland's needless snub unleashed the wrath of BOD

Of all the sports people I have encountered, Brian O'Driscoll is – by a distance – the most considered. He doesn't toss random hand grenades or get innocently drawn down editorial paths of anyone else's choosing. He understands the media machine, fully recognises its capacity for mischief.

So his jibe at Warren Gatland was no accidental stumble, no match tossed innocently into a kerosene jug. Consider it simply as a scab that, after two months of quiet forbearance, needed picking.

Framed in the context of a broad TV interview conducted by his former Leinster and Ireland colleague Shane Horgan, O'Driscoll's observation on Sky Sports about feelings of "resentment" toward the Lions coach bears little of the incendiary impact it carries in the written word.

Sky certainly recognised this, airing it on their sports news bulletins yesterday afternoon as a kind of teaser for 'The Rugby Club' programme looming at 8pm.

And O'Driscoll, for all his tweeted frustration about quotes "lifted out of context for headlines", will have had little real difficulty with the ensuing commotion. He simply had something that needed saying and, chances are, he wanted it out of the way before the new (and his final) rugby season.

The utter professionalism he displayed during the final week of the Lions tour in Australia will have surprised nobody. He is first and foremost a team player whose selflessness in battle has routinely flown in the face of any care for his individual wellbeing.

But Gatland's decision to exclude Ireland's greatest player from any involvement in the Third Test will have hurt O'Driscoll wretchedly. The call seemed unnecessary at the time and, even in the context of the Test that followed, felt oddly incidental to the result.

For the Lions murdered Australia in the scrum, their 41-16 victory forged upon forward domination conspicuously absent from the opening two Tests.

O'Driscoll, you sense, though, could have lived with that. His replacement, Jonathan Davies, has confirmed that the Irishman betrayed no bitterness toward him, remarking that his subsequent demeanour in training "was testament to the guy".

Still, the call drew a pretty nuclear reaction, particularly on social media sites worldwide. And, closer to home, his status as a virtual secular saint lent the decision a whiff of national outrage.

Davies was one of 10 Welsh players named to start that final Test by a coach on temporary leave from his position as, well, national coach to Wales. The arithmetic looked skewed, but the Lions won.

Gatland and O'Driscoll were, of course, photographed on the pitch after the victory, exchanging playful adversarial poses.

But there was little fun in the coach's tone afterwards as he spoke to media of the "almost vitriolic" criticism he had received over his omission of Ireland's Grand Slam winning captain. Bizarrely, in his moment of glorious triumph, Gatland implied that – for him – the series victory had been somehow tainted.

Worse, he spoke as if his omission of O'Driscoll had been a decision that proved pivotal to the Lions' victory.

"That's why you're in the job, to make those tough calls," he said. "Every now and again one of them comes through and you get it right. Sometimes you have to put your balls on the line."

For O'Driscoll, already subjected to the indignity of fulfilling press conference duties that week under the clear impression that he would be playing in Sydney, this had to feel like the final straw. The impression of a coach tossing salt into the open wound.

In a world of endorphin highs and dopamine hits, O'Driscoll doesn't do reactionary. If anything, that emotional evenness is a fundamental of his greatness. But insult him and you will come to know the precision of his anger.

That is, maybe, what distinguishes him from a Roy Keane. There is an obvious seduction to comparing one with the other on the basis of their enormous competitive aggression. But O'Driscoll picks his fights more carefully.

He will have known exactly what he was saying to Horgan in that Sky interview and how diverse the media interpretation would be. Bottom line, he wanted it out there.

I don't doubt that end-of-Test picture with Gatland is a personal irritant to him today, for it conveys a clubbiness that did not exist. Yesterday, he set the record straight.

"Is he on the Christmas card list?" he smiled rhetorically at Horgan, before answering his own question. "Unlikely!"

Birds are unlikely to come toppling from the sky.

Irish Independent

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