Wednesday 17 January 2018

Tony Ward: Omission has created hollow feeling – even if Lions triumph

H OW you can go from being a virtual shoo-in as captain to not even making the match-day 23? Only Warren Gatland can tell. Dropping the iconic figure of Brian O'Driscoll is a big call and a dangerous one.

Credit Gatland for having the guts to go without the most obvious replacement leader but how the head coach can justify the rationale behind one of the most controversial Lions selection decisions ever is beyond me.

If it was based on form, it doesn't stack up. If based on leadership, presence and, perhaps most important of all, impact on others, then even less so.

Like most decisions in professional sport, the result in Sydney will determine everything. If the Lions win, Gatland's a genius; lose and he's a dithering clown. So far throughout his coaching career, the former Connacht, Wasps and Ireland mentor has been lucky and successful in equal measure. But this call, whatever your take, sees the main man's reputation on the line.

ZENITH

As one who experienced a similar fall from grace, albeit with Ireland in the amateur age, although coincidentally against the same opposition on the same landmass in similar circumstances, all I can say is that Brian will need all the support he can get. The higher you go in the game, the greater the fall and our greatest ever player is certainly tumbling from the zenith now. A star hasn't fallen; he has been dragged down.

At least I had the consolation of active participation in the match-day squad whereas the closest O'Driscoll will get will be the Sky cameras panning from time to time to his face in the stands throughout the Test.

He will, of course, say all the right things as in 'all for one, one for all' and all that diplomatic stuff but, deep down, he will be hurting badly. Not only is his pride dented, but his self-confidence is undermined.

That is my real concern going forward. Having committed himself to one more shot for Joe Schmidt and Ireland, his mindset right now could be to chuck it all in and leave well enough alone. My advice would be to hold tight (not easy in the circumstances), say little, enjoy the well-earned break with the family. Just park rugby and see how body and mind feel come September.

If Gatland genuinely believes Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are a better balanced and more potent duo, then picking them is his prerogative. That is why he is the head coach. But that doesn't make it right. It smacks of panic; a coach under pressure retreating to the comfort zone and to the players he knows and, to be fair, those who have served him well at Six Nations level.

Perhaps I am in the minority – or maybe even alone – in thinking do I really want the Lions to win? Do I care anymore? For 80 minutes on Saturday, it will be forgotten, but even should the Lions win and Gatland become another Sky-appointed "immortal", the injustice has been done. O'Driscoll has been denied that well-earned opportunity at making his last Lions appearance a series-winning one.

Apart from his consistent form, there is the competitive element, that degree of honesty that O'Driscoll brings to every big match he plays. He is the go-to player, the one you want beside you in the trenches, the one who leads by deed. Dan Carter is right – he shouldn't just be in the team, he should be there as captain.

It would be stretching it to suggest the complete absence of O'Driscoll is handing the Test series to the Wallabies but certainly the fallout from yesterday's team announcement will have damaged morale within the touring squad. Both Tests to date have been taken on the back of missed kicks at the death. The Lions will unashamedly adhere to route-one rugby and in Leigh Halfpenny, they have the man to steer them home.

Under normal circumstances, we would take that. But the decision to omit O'Driscoll, thereby bringing a sudden end to his 12-year, four-tour Lions involvement, leaves a void and an equally hollow feeling of injustice. No player is beyond dropping but when it is done oblivious to form, then the taste is more bitter still.

On a more positive note, the selection of Sean O'Brien is at last an acknowledgement of form. Yet had Sam Warburton been available, it would likely have been an all-Welsh back-row. We'd like to think country of origin is irrelevant in the context of a Lions tour but on this must-win occasion, we question that four-into-one principle.

For sure, Gatland's reputation is on the line, but whatever happens, O'Driscoll's is assuredly not.

Irish Independent

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