Tom English: Gatland takes risk in O’Driscoll snub

Brian O'Driscoll with team mate Manu Tuilagi. Picture: Getty
Brian O'Driscoll with team mate Manu Tuilagi. Picture: Getty
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Warren Gatland’s reputation now rests on the final Test after his radical team selection, writes Tom English

There’s a famous scene in All The President’s Men when Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, chastises his reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, late at night outside his house, laying it on the line to the men who were chasing down the scandal of Watergate.

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“You guys are probably pretty tired, right?” Bradlee tells them. “Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f*** up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”

Bradlee’s words could be tweaked a little and applied to Warren Gatland and his squad as they prepare for the denouement in Sydney on Saturday. They’re tired. They need to get their asses back in gear. They’ve f****d up and if they f*** up again then everyone’s going to get mad. Nothing’s riding on it except, well, a lot, not least Gatland’s own reputation given his decision to omit Brian O’Driscoll from his match-day squad, a gamble so fearless that it would make the legendary punter Amarillo Slim recoil in terror.

Gatland does not owe O’Driscoll a fairytale finish to his storied Lions career, doesn’t owe him a place in the team, or the squad, for Saturday just because this is the great man’s last opportunity to win a series after three failed attempts. So much emotion greeted Gatland’s announcement yesterday and some of it seemed to be based on over-wrought sentiment. “How could Gatland do this to Drico?” “Brian deserved better”. “This is no way for a legend to finish his Lions career”.

All of this is an understandable reaction, but it’s irrelevant to Gatland. His job is to pick the team that he thinks will get the job done against the Australians. That is how he will be judged. We all say that we buy into the notion of the Lions being about one team and not four individual countries until such time as our favourites are not picked or when one nation dominates the other three, as is the case with ten Welshmen playing on Saturday. Then the nationalists emerge. Then the rancour unfolds. It was ever thus.

Not many agree with Gatland’s decision, but there ought to be an admiration for him for having the guts to make it. This is a coach who is going all-in on the final Test, who is risking an unprecedented personal pummelling should it go wrong, a vilification of his philosophy that will go down in history. Gatland knows the risks involved and he’s still made the call. We will soon know whether it was the right one or not, but you’d have to be pretty one-eyed not to acknowledge that bravery of what he did yesterday. Dropping O’Driscoll took some amount of conviction.

If it works, then he will be remembered as a born winner who had the balls to make a decision that few others would have had the nerve to make. If it goes wrong then he’ll be in the annals of Lions bad guys, the bloke who betrayed the spirit of the most cherished team, the Kiwi who trampled over 125 years of history and picked Wales for a Test match.

Nobody knows how this is going to turn out, but it’s fair to question Gatland’s wisdom. The fact that there are ten Welsh in the starting line-up is being overplayed, though. Of the ten, who would you remove? Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Alun Wyn Jones are shoo-ins. Mike Phillips was very poor in the first Test but on his best day he is streets ahead of Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, who was jumpy last weekend. Richard Hibbard’s lineout throwing is a concern but his scrummaging power is required. Dan Lydiate is not an overly contentious call. Neither, surely, is Toby Faletau, who has been excellent on tour. Many called for his inclusion instead of Jamie Heaslip in any case.

This brings us back to O’Driscoll versus Jonathan Davies and the way Gatland wants to play the game; biff, biff and more biff. One-dimensional. Unexciting. Predictable, but, he hopes, unstoppable. The Australians are calling it Warrenball. It’s not in Gatland’s job description to win prettily, only to win. Everybody is guessing, but it would look from this distance that dropping O’Driscoll makes victory less likely on Saturday.

Sure, O’Driscoll’s best stuff is behind him. He no longer has the ability to turn a game with his brilliance and the speed of body, hand and thought that marked him out as the finest Irish player of all-time and one of the greatest of his generation in world rugby. He did not play well last weekend, making some poor errors. But neither did Davies alongside him.

This is where the head-scratching begins. Gatland’s team played to a conservative gameplan in Melbourne where the opportunity to attack was lessened dramatically by Gatland’s negativity. For not making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, O’Driscoll departs from the team. On the bench is Manu Tuilagi, the greatest symbol of what Gatland is about. He wants his team to run over the top of the Wallabies. Plan A is Roberts and Davies blasting up the middle. If it fails, Tuilagi comes on as another battering ram. From Plan A to Plan A. It’s not exactly subtle.

Davies is a talented player, but last weekend he played poorly himself. At least O’Driscoll made his tackles, 12 in all; a hell of a number for a centre. Davies missed three tackles including one that let the Australians in for the critical try. It seems that the reason he is in the team is so that his partnership with Roberts can be rekindled. This partnership has never beaten the Wallabies. Wales, as we know, have lost their last eight matches against Australia.

Alun Wyn Jones has not captained Wales on any of these occasions. Gatland has given the Welsh captaincy to Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Ryan Jones and Sam Warburton but has never seen Alun Wyn Jones in that kind of leadership role. But now, suddenly, he does. He gives him the job despite the loss of the current Lions captain, Warburton, and the last Lions captain, Paul O’Connell. He has dropped O’Driscoll, the Lions captain before O’Connell, and has also omitted the Ireland captain, Jamie Heaslip. He has left the respective captains of England and Scotland at home.

Clever or stupid? Brave or needlessly reckless? Under the greatest pressure of his coaching life, Gatland has gone for what he knows: Wales. He has forsaken a player, O’Driscoll, whose defensive qualities in midfield are beyond compare. Maybe he is underestimating that part of the Irishman’s game. Maybe he is undervaluing the importance of leadership.

We’ll soon know. As Bradlee might have said, nothing is riding on this, except history and a coach’s reputation that is currently in the no man’s land between clear-thinking genius and hapless blunderer, between Carwyn James and Mr Bean.