There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.
When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?
He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.
Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history. ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’. The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.
So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.
Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.
The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it. With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months. They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.
The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose. As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest. But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.
Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference. So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players. No room for creativity here. That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary. Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre. It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed. But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.
Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.
With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders. Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).
The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky. Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far. Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side. Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue. The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that
Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today. As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric. He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.
Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything. Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves. While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test. Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.
Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.
But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.
Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?