“We have not come up to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to be tourists. We have come north to this holiday resort to get body and mind in just the right place.”
When Brian O’Driscoll was giving that quote yesterday it was in response to criticism – from former Lions coach Clive Woodward among others – that the spin to Noosa was not a great idea. Whether or not O’Driscoll was toeing the party line or not is irrelevant in the light of the unique setback which Warren Gatland laid at his door earlier today. O’Driscoll is now, barring an injury to one of his midfield colleagues between here and Saturday, in the bucket and spade brigade.
In his delivery of the match 23 for Sydney, Gatland acknowledged that O’Driscoll was disappointed with the news, but that he would still be a key part of the leadership in the build up to this winner takes all Test. Eh, no Warren, he won’t. If you wanted him to fill that role then he’d be starting in ANZ Stadium on Saturday night instead of wearing his numbers ones in the stand with a camera in one hand and a match programme in the other.
As conversations go between coaches and players, the chat between Gatland and O’Driscoll must have put in the shade the short meeting between Declan Kidney and the same player six months ago when captaincy was the only item on the agenda. Back then Kidney got it in the neck for raining on the parade of the most famous player in Irish rugby history when O’Driscoll was, as we thought then, on his last lap. Heaslip struggled so badly in the role that it hastened the exit of the coach.
Gatland too will be buried in an avalanche of criticism if the Welsh midfield fires blanks on Saturday. It’s worrying that there will be 10 Wales players in the starting line-up when their record against Australia is so poor, winning just one of the last 13 Tests (losing the last eight in a row).
Leading that band will be Alun Wyn Jones. Given the recent history between himself and James Horwill the coin toss will be a Kodak moment, but you have to wonder how highly Gatland rates him as a captain. Clearly he is an outstanding player, but if Jones is such a good leader why has the coach not given him the job with Wales instead of passing him over several times when the opportunity arose?
Suddenly Jones finds himself trying to steady a ship in a storm. The squad will come down from Noosa tomorrow – another travel day so close to the Test doesn’t sound great – after a break where it spilled down for three days and the Lions seemed to be doing everything possible to forget about their predicament.
And their predicament is this: in Melbourne they came off second best in providing front-foot ball for their backs, which contributed to both O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies having ordinary games. There was a time in O’Driscoll’s career when he was capable occasionally of creating something out of nothing. Not anymore. If your game plan is predicated on making headway off your set-piece to get quality go-forward from your midfield, then your set-piece needs to be dominant. And that wasn’t happening.
Dropping Brian O’Driscoll is a brave call by Gatland, evidence that he has the bottle to do what he thinks is right regardless of the fallout. But if he thinks O’Driscoll is the issue then he’s on the wrong track. And yet another Lions series will be derailed.