Tuesday 12 December 2017

Gatland never really had O'Driscoll in his plans for Test team

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with Jonathan Sexton
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with Jonathan Sexton
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A bad call in run up to third Test looks worse than the same call made two weeks earlier, writes Brendan FanningSometimes covering an overseas tour takes you farther from home than you realise. Eight years ago, I had an early-hours conversation with the then sports editor of this newspaper who was trying to impress on me the gravity of the situation. I had just reported from Christchurch, where it was about 2.0am, on the Lions' first Test against New Zealand, from which Brian O'Driscoll had been ousted before he had even worked up a sweat.

The first we knew that there was an issue for the citing commissioner was when we settled in for the press conference. A colleague said he had gotten a good view of the incident in which the captain was injured. "It looked pretty dodgy," he said. It was raised at the conference, but by way of general inquiry rather than interrogation. New Zealand coach Graham Henry kicked for touch, knowing there was a storm brewing, while the Lions camp didn't make a whole lot of noise either.

Meantime back in Ireland, where the replays were being, well, replayed on a continuous loop, the troops were mobilising. "The country's going mad," my boss said, sounding a bit agitated at my lack of excitement. Next thing we knew Clive Woodward was calling a press conference that coincided with the milkmen doing their rounds, and the battle lines were drawn. It all kicked off.

We revisited that street here this week. This time we had the daylight advantage when the story broke, and no crystal balls were needed to predict the reaction at home. Talk radio was invented for this sort of thing. Social media the same. Everyone has a voice and a platform and in the cacophony you get a barrage of the abusive mixed with the mindless.

To understand where it's coming from you have to get a handle on three things: the times we live in; the man at the heart of the issue; and the environment in which he finds himself. First, there is the communications thing. People have instant access to images and information from around the world, and with equal speed they can broadcast their opinion. So the dropping of Brian O'Driscoll went viral, and it infected a fair few who aren't in the best of health to begin with.

Second, there is O'Driscoll himself, Ireland's most accomplished player, a man respected around the rugby world. This has earned him iconic status in Ireland. So when the legs are pulled from under him on his last lap, it's more than the rugby constituency that notices.

Third, there is the entity that is the Lions. It's a commercial juggernaut loved by those who follow it and treasured by those who host it. For the punters it is a unique jolly, where fans from four countries occupy different paragraphs on the same page and under the same heading. They want the Lions to win but mostly they want their own players in the Test team.

Either way they can cope readily with the familiar setback of defeat. Many of them save from one tour to the next to make the trip. For example there is a small army of savers from South Wales in my hotel in Sydney's Darling Harbour. Were they occupied by O'Driscoll's demotion? Eh, no.

The theories for what prompted Warren Gatland's call range from crazy to plausible. Some think he is paying back Ireland for his being dumped as our national coach back in 2001. Certainly there is a part of Gatland that still carries resentment over that, but the only people who think this holds water are the loonies online.

The plausible one is that Gatland never reckoned O'Driscoll would make the Test team in the first place. When he was banging on pre-tour about the captaincy not being the be-all and end-all, I interpreted it as code that O'Driscoll would be the tour captain but that he might not be leading the Lions out in the Tests. When he went for Sam Warburton it seemed that it was all to play for, and quickly O'Driscoll had that Test look about him.

Gatland announced the team for the third Test on Wednesday last week rather than Thursday as would be standard for a Saturday game, in the hope that the hurricane would have eased by yesterday. Indeed, had Jamie Roberts been fit for the first Test the bridge would have been crossed then, and the storm would have blown over altogether by now.

Instead it has raged for all the reasons above, and perhaps the worst aspect of it is its timing. A bad call made in the run up to the third Test looks a whole lot worse than the same call made two weeks earlier. If you're viewing that from home, however, it's just awful either way. Out here it doesn't seem quite so bad. It's a good time to be far from home.

Irish Independent

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