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Reputation on the line

Warren Gatland can certainly never be accused of not being brave, though there are perhaps a few other adjectives that may spring to the minds of Lions fans today.

In dropping Brian O’Driscoll, the first person to have done so in the great Irishman’s career, he has made a decision that could cost him his reputation if it fails.

Some of the criticism of the decision is unwarranted though, Gatland is neither stupid nor naïve, in fact it is his lack of naivety or stupidity which makes this such a defining decision for him – he clearly believes, and presumably with some logic behind it, that the best way for the Lions to win this Test match is without the aid of O’Driscoll, on the pitch at least. It is a calculated decision.

It seems hard to find a way to agree with him though, the absence of O’Driscoll’s leadership, defensive ability, experience, and subtlety in attack would appear to be an enormous void in the Lions arsenal. Indeed it is that fact that Gatland almost seemed to dismiss leadership as irrelevant that perhaps baffled most, he said:

“It wasn’t about leadership or picking a captain first, it was about picking what we felt was the best team.”

Meaning that they selected fifteen players and then chose a captain, baffling in a Lions context, when leadership and experience are two of the most important qualities. As they are at most levels of rugby.

Creating such a big media story (and Gatland as we have said is neither stupid nor naïve, he knew it would be a big story) seems likely only to increase the pressure on the team, and on Jonathan Davies in particular. His every moved will be analysed through the prism of what O’Driscoll would have done in that situation, a tough situation for one of the stars of the tour.

Looking across the other fourteen selections it is clear that the game plan revolves around one solitary tactic – get across the gainline. In the returning Jamie Roberts at centre plus Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau and Richard Hibbard in the forwards, dominating the gainline is clearly the number one priority in this 3rd Test.

The hope of most is that this is just a tactic to enable front foot ball from which to play more expansively, the worry is that it may not be.

Mike Phillips’ return speaks of the same idea, his game is at its best when he has Roberts making a nice big target for him to run off from the 12 channel.

The theory is all there and if it works then it could do some damage. If the Lions can punch some big holes and play with a crazed intensity, moving the ball wide once they are moving forward, then they could be devastating, it is what Wales did to England in the Six Nations.

However the worry is that it may not work, if they cannot get on the front foot there is no apparent Plan B, the substitutes are designed to play in a very similar fashion, hence the inclusion of Tuilagi and Murray. It is why the absence of O’Driscoll is so mystifying; his leadership would have been vital in that scenario.

Speaking of the bench, whilst it does seem to offer little by way of a Plan B, there can be little doubting that as a bench it is one of the most formidable that many of us have seen. It does not take much of an imagination to see any of those players coming on and having an enormous impact on the game. Seeing them change it tactically would be a big surprise though.

Despite all of the negativity though there are some positives to be taken for Lions supporters. This gameplan is the plan that one gets the impression Warren Gatland has always wanted his Lions side to play under and that he believes stands the best chance of beating Australia, he has been unable to implement it due to injuries thus far though.

Despite not playing well in the first two Tests the Lions have managed to keep the series at 1-1 and have the chance to win a series for the first time since 1997. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that if they are finally able to play how the coaches had obviously originally intended then the improvement should be able to see the cross that hurdle.

Whilst the absence of O’Driscoll is at best brave and at worst foolhardy, the hope must be that it inspires the Lions to deliver a performance – they know how much this means to him and they know they now almost have a responsibility to him. Also, while Jonathan Davies may not be the preferred choice of many at 13, he is more familiar with Jamie Roberts than anyone, which could make it a decisive combination.

What we can be utterly certain of though is that the selection of this Test squad was not in any way influenced by nationality or any loyalty from Gatland to his Welsh players as has been suggested by some.

Suggestions that he took the ‘easy’ option of selection Welshman that he knows and is comfortable with are wildy off the mark, telling Brian O’Driscoll that he had been dropped would have been the hardest thing Gatland has ever had to do as a coach.

No, Gatland has selected what he believes is the best team to do the job and whether we agree or disagree with his view on that front, we can be categorical in saying that that is why he has picked those he has picked – nationality plays no part.

There are some brave calls by Gatland, not least O’Driscoll, how they pan out remains to be seen. What is for certain though is that the knives have been sharpened.

One suspects he would not have it any other way.

Lions XV for the 3rd Test v Australia:

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Jonathan Davies 12. Jamie Roberts 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Alex Corbisiero 2. Richard Hibbard 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones (captain) 5. Geoff Parling 6. Dan Lydiate 7. Sean O’Brien 8. Toby Faletau.

Replacements: 16. Tom Youngs 17. Mako Vunipola 18. Dan Cole 19. Richie Gray 20. Justin Tipuric 21. Conor Murray 22. Owen Farrell 23. Manu Tuilagi.

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