Wednesday 13 December 2017

O'Brien and Tipuric the big losers as Gatland takes a gamble on his Welsh 'favourites'

Justin Tipuric (centre) in action against ACT Brumbies in Canberra
Justin Tipuric (centre) in action against ACT Brumbies in Canberra
Conor George

Conor George

SEAN O'Brien, Justin Tipuric and Conor Murray have every right to feel aggrieved after being omitted from the Test squad for tomorrow's opening salvo against Australia.

The slavish selection of Tour captain Sam Warburton at openside flanker is proof that Warren Gatland has ignored current form in some of his selections.

Picking Warburton and Dan Lydiate confirms the long-held belief that the coach had some players chiselled into his Test squad as far back as April 30 when Gatland revealed his initial 37-man squad in London.

When he was asked to explain his reasoning for appointing Warburton as captain ahead of the claims of previous tour captains Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, he did so by stating that, at that moment, Warburton was his starting openside.

Since then Warburton's playing time has been restricted because of various injuries. He has shown a return to form in his limited outings on tour so far, but he has not been the outstanding Lions openside.

Both Tipuric and O'Brien have been playing better than the captain in the No 7 shirt and it is astonishing that no room has been found in the Test squad for either man.

O'Brien covers all three back-row positions and, even though he wasn't at his best in the loss to the Brumbies on Tuesday, he was still by far the best of the forwards that started the game and it is hugely surprising that he has been overlooked.

At their very best and at the peak of their fitness, both Lydiate and Warburton are outstanding players, but the simple truth is that other players are playing better than them.

It was always probable that Gatland would persevere with his captain. What coach would willingly admit that he had got his selection wrong by deposing the leader he put his initial faith in?

But the form of both Tipuric and O'Brien should at least have been recognised by including one of them in the squad. If they have lost out because of below-par performances against the Brumbies in Canberra, how is it that Ben Youngs has made the bench ahead of Ireland's Murray?

The Munster scrum-half has been in very good form for the Lions and there was a marked improvement in the tourists' play when he replaced Youngs in Canberra. His passing has been clean and crisp, his box-kicking accurate and effective and his defensive work has been excellent.

Similarly, Simon Zebo must surely have been a strong contender for the bench as a result of both his form and his versatility.

He offers cover for both wings and full-back and it was noticeable that Sean Maitland struggled to adapt when he played there against Combined Country. He was also outshone by Zebo in the game against the Waratahs when they were on opposite wings.

The starting XV tomorrow includes eight new Test Lions. In the backs, Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Sexton all make their debuts, while experience is provided by O'Driscoll and Mike Phillips, who have nine Lions Tests between them.

The pack contains a wealth of experience, with Jamie Heaslip, Tom Croft, O'Connell, Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Jones sharing 17 Lions Test appearances between them. Loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero, who joined the tour as a replacement, also makes his debut along with Warburton and hooker Tom Youngs. It is, of course, the prerogative of the coach to select his preferred team and he will live and die by the result. It is, however, hard not to believe that he has made a couple of errors in judgment and that he has been too intransigent with regard to ignoring form on tour.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport