Monday 18 December 2017

Jamie Roberts: I owe Brian O'Driscoll a big performance

Jamie Roberts
Jamie Roberts

Duncan Bech

Jamie Roberts reflected on his "huge position of responsibility" after his return to fitness resulted in Brian O'Driscoll being dropped for the British and Irish Lions' series decider against Australia.

The shock omission of O'Driscoll from the 23 for the third and final Test at ANZ Stadium on Saturday is a controversial decision by head coach Warren Gatland, who has selected 10 Welshmen in his starting XV.

Having recovered from the hamstring strain that forced him to miss the first two matches against the Wallabies, Roberts has been chosen at inside centre where he will renew his Wales midfield partnership with Jonathan Davies.

While O'Driscoll's form has been unimpressive, the loss of skipper Sam Warburton to a torn hamstring pointed to Ireland's decorated 2005 Lions captain leading the team in Sydney.

But Alun-Wyn Jones has been given that honour with O'Driscoll - the squad's most senior player - ruthlessly omitted altogether.

The call will see critics queue up to savage Gatland, the Wales head coach, should the Lions lose to Australia in the climax to an epic series and Roberts understands that he must justify his coach's faith.

"It was probably the most nerve-wracking team selection I've ever had in my career. There were a lot of tight calls and none more so than Brian's," Roberts said.

"To show you what sort of guy he is, he was the first to come up to me at the end of training and ask if I wanted to do any extras. He's one of the greatest players to have played the game.

"I now have a huge position of responsibility on Saturday and I have to thrive on that and deliver. That's my job.

"Of course you owe it to the coach to show his selection was right - and you owe it to your fellow players as well. I owe it to guys like Brian as well."

On form O'Driscoll's place in the team warranted scrutiny, but the backs have generally fed off poor ball while Davies has yet to fire in the Test series and could also have made way for Roberts' return.

Factor in O'Driscoll's big-game temperament, leadership and determination to mark his fourth and final Lions tour with a first series triumph and he appeared an automatic selection for a match of such magnitude.

"Surprise (at Gatland's decision) is not the right word. Warren has made some big calls and ultimately you respect the coach's decision," Roberts said.

"He's picked a team that he believes can win on Saturday, whether that includes Brian O'Driscoll or not.

"Brian's an incredible player and an asset to the squad who has played some wonderful rugby on this tour.

"But the coach has made the decision and he's picked the players he feels can deliver on Saturday.

"A lot of very, very good players have missed out on selection for Saturday."

Roberts' initial reaction after damaging his hamstring in the 47-17 victory over NSW Waratahs on June 15 was that his tour was over, but intensive physiotherapy has enabled him to recover.

The physical presence of the Racing Metro-bound 26-year-old was missed during the first two Tests and his return sees the Lions bring even more power to bear on Australia.

"I've never had a hamstring strain before, it was alien territory for me," he said.

"I'd did everything I could to get back and I'm hugely grateful to the medical team. I have to repay that faith.

"To play in a Lions series decider - that and a World Cup final are the ultimate, the biggest you can get in northern hemisphere rugby.

"It's a great stage and huge responsibility for every player not to shy away from it.

"I'm sure the atmosphere will be quite unlike anything a lot of us have experience before. It's about holding your nerve and producing the goods."

Gatland has made six changes to the starting XV beaten 16-15 in Brisbane with Sean O'Brien, Toby Faletau, Richard Hibbard, Alex Corbisiero and Mike Phillips completing the new arrivals.

The record-equalling number of players from Gatland's Wales has also caused a stir, not least because of their dismal record against Australia of eight successive defeats.

"First and foremost we're not Wales. Losing to Australia last November was one of the toughest games I've endured," he said.

"But a lot of these guys have beaten Australia - they did it two weeks ago. It's been desperately close."

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