Gavin Hastings: Gutsy Gatland’s win to cherish

Warren Gatland heads down the tunnel after masterminding the British Lions' enthralling win over Australia in Sydney. Picture: PA

Warren Gatland heads down the tunnel after masterminding the British Lions' enthralling win over Australia in Sydney. Picture: PA

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THE celebrations have died down a bit now, but the impact of that amazing victory for the British & Irish Lions will be felt for some time to come.

The 41-16 win in Saturday’s final Test against the Wallabies gave the Lions their first series victory in 16 years, and that has to be a real shot in the arm for rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.

I’m delighted for everybody who was a part of the tour party, but especially for Warren Gatland. He showed huge character in picking the team he did for the final Test, and basically put his reputation on the line. If you look at the severe criticism he got just for picking that side, imagine what it would have been like if they had lost the match.

It must have been an agonising decision, in particular, to drop Brian O’Driscoll not only from the team but from the whole squad for the game, but it was also a clear-headed recognition that a different combination in the centres could work better. That proved to be the case, as Jamie Roberts had a magnificent game and Jonathan Davies was not far behind him. Davies had more game time throughout the tour than anyone else in the party, and that is testament to the consistently high standard he reached.

I felt Gatland was always going to pick his Welsh players to do it. He knows them better than he knows the other nationalities in the party, and they’ve not let him down in the past. So, knowing exactly what they were capable of, he selected them to make up the bulk of the team.

He can be the proudest man in the world with the way things turned out. Leigh Halfpenny and George North were magnificent again, Mike Phillips had a better game than in the first Test, and as I said, the two centres were superb as well.

Of course the result was unexpected. I think even those of us inclined to be as optimistic as possible were only looking for a three or four-point win, and if that’s the way it had turned out, the celebrations would not have been any less: it would still have been an excellent result after the momentum had apparently swung back to Australia when they won the second Test after losing the first.

And we were probably all still thinking that way at the start of the second half when the home team were right back into the match after the Lions had got off to a flying start with that try by Alex Corbisiero. Having been pegged back after such dominance for much of the first half, the Lions knew it was vital that they get the next score at that point, and sure enough they did.

At the end of the day, the result was always going to justify the selection. No-one can argue with it now. It worked.

People could call it a slight on Brian O’Driscoll to be left out, but knowing the guy as I do, I’m absolutely certain of one thing. He would far rather not play in the final Test and be part of a winning tour party, than play in that match and end up on the losing side.

Of course he would rather have played, and he was very honest about that desire. But when all the controversies about individual selection issues have died away, the simple truth will remain: on Brian’s playing record for ever will be the fact that he played in a Lions touring party that won the series.

That’s also true for everyone who took part. It was not just the guys who played on Saturday who won the series. That result was the culmination of everything that had happened on tour, and of the long months of preparation before it as well.

One other thing I want to say about Brian is that he was absolutely exemplary in the way he took the decision to drop him. He was one of the first out to training and one of the last to end it in the final week, and he probably spent as much time as anyone signing autographs and talking to the parties of school kids who would turn up to meet the Lions. That supportive attitude from those who are not playing is vital, and as far as I’m concerned the way in which Brian conducted himself was magnificent.

As for the Wallabies, although they lost the series I think they can look ahead to the Rugby Championship with genuine optimism. They are rugby-ready now, which many of us thought they would not be after being rested for so long before the first Test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat the All Blacks in their next match.

Robbie Deans was always going to resign as head coach at some stage, and this is probably the best time. Even if he had won, some people in Australia would still have had it in for him, as they would rather have one of their own in charge of the Wallabies than a New Zealander. Ewen McKenzie will take charge now, and I would expect Quade Cooper to come back into the side now after being left out by Deans.

While Australia look to the immediate future, the Lions will, as usual, wait four years for their next tour. It’s to New Zealand, and it’s going to be huge.

The Lions is the biggest thing in rugby outside of the Rugby World Cup. People who have never been on a tour may not agree, but I can assure you, when you see 25,000 or 30,000 people dressed in red Lions jerseys, having travelled thousands of miles to see the team play, you understand just how big it is.

• Gavin Hastings is an HSBC ambassador. HSBC is proud Principal Partner to the 2013 British & Irish Lions on their Tour to Australia. The Legendary Journey continues. Follow The Lions’ Legendary Journey at youtube.com/LionsHSBC

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