Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Lionheart needlessly left with bittersweet memory

Tommy Conlon

He put a brave face on it, and he was undoubtedly happy for his team-mates, but it was still a poignant sight to see Brian O'Driscoll walking around in his blazer on the pitch.

The British and Irish Lions were men triumphant and the players wearing red had the sweat and the scars of combat to prove it. O'Driscoll, for once in his career, didn't. The celebrations had been earned without his prodigious labours. A team to which he belonged had done it without him. The star who had commanded the spotlight for over a decade was now marginal, an extra.

Not to be too parochial about it, but Irish sports fans watching the climactic third Test in Sydney were surely thinking fondly of absent friends as the party started. Out on the pitch with O'Driscoll, and also wearing his blazer, was the injured Paul O'Connell. Another national figure, for whom people would've felt nothing but joy, had not been able to play his part.

The reaction to O'Driscoll's exclusion last week from the match-day squad was proof that for a few special sportsmen, their relationship with their public eventually becomes personal. It doesn't happen overnight, it evolves over the years as his story becomes a soap opera of victories and defeats, tears and joy, valour and brilliance and crushing disappointments. They get to know him, to identify with his highs and lows, until finally he becomes family. The vast majority of fans never get to meet him but it doesn't matter: when you have given so much for so long, you are family.

So the reaction in this country last week was personal: someone dear to them had been hurt and they felt the hurt too. People were angry and emotional. Sports fans are usually selfish; as soon as a player reaches his sell-by date they are happy to see the back of him. But in O'Driscoll's case they wanted him to have his one last shining moment. They knew how much it would mean to him to win a Lions series on this, his fourth and final tour. They wanted the romance, they wanted him to have his fairytale finish.

And it was taken from him, not through something as banal as an injury, but by a very public decision handed down from on high. The Lions coach Warren Gatland had dropped him, and not just from the team but from even the subs' bench. Everyone knows, and accepts, that there's no room for sentiment in serious sport. But even in this cold climate, the decision seemed exceptionally cruel.

It was almost as if Gatland was so determined to show how immune he could be to sentiment, that he over-compensated.

But if the decision lacked heart, it seemed to be lacking in logic too, because the player who survived the cut, Wales's Jonathan Davies, had been no better than O'Driscoll in the previous two Tests. Both in fact had shown moderate form, a lot of it for reasons that were beyond their control. The Lions had been sticking to a conservative style of play, and their forwards struggling to provide any sort of platform from which to launch their backline.

In the hours before kick-off yesterday, Gatland was asked in a television interview if he'd been surprised by the scale of the uproar after he'd dropped O'Driscoll. He said he knew it would be a "big story" for a couple of days and warned his fellow selectors accordingly. However, "hand on hearts we felt it was the right decision to make. We've had to make a tough call that we felt was the right decision at the time and in a couple of hours' time we're gonna know whether it's the right decision."

As it turned out, the decision was almost irrelevant. The Lions forward pack was so dominant in the first half that the constitution of the backline was virtually academic. They smashed Australia in the scrums and built a score from there. Watching it from the sidelines, O'Driscoll must surely have had a few wistful thoughts about the influence he'd be enjoying behind such a omnipotent pack. He'd have revelled in it; any international player would have.

But by half-time his absence had suddenly become a live issue again. Australia's marvellous resilience had kicked in. They had gotten off the canvas and engineered a try that left them

looking dangerously buoyant. Two penalties straight after the break left them just three points behind. The fat was in the fire; the Lions were looking fragile. There was a BOD-shaped hole where a leader was needed.

Afterwards Gatland was humble enough to admit he'd had doubts about his big call. If his team had thrown away that first-half 16-point lead it would have been open season on him. But they didn't. Several Lions came up with big plays, including Jonny Sexton, who showed the kind of bottle and composure for which his old mentor at Leinster and Ireland is renowned.

O'Driscoll almost certainly would have thrived in the circumstances thrown up by yesterday's match. The Lions would have won and he'd have got the send-off he deserved. The result proved that Gatland wasn't wrong; but it doesn't mean he was right either.

It does mean that O'Driscoll walks away with the Lions series victory his great career demanded. It's just a pity it will probably be a bittersweet memory.

thecouch@independent.ie

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