Gatland's grave gamble

03/07/2013

@AdamRedmond on O'Driscoll shock chop

THERE’S a fine line between bravery and stupidity and we won’t find out which side of it Warren Gatland falls on until Saturday lunchtime, but he can have no complaints if he ends up wearing the dunce’s hat.

For 14 years no coach has deemed that an able-bodied Brian O’Driscoll was not good enough to be handed a No 13 shirt and Gatland’s decision to drop the centre now makes him entirely responsible for the fate of 2013 Lions.

However, the decision has made it clear that had Jamie Roberts been fit for the first Test that O’Driscoll would not have made Gatland’s team, but that still does not give logic to the argument that Jon Davies is a better option in the outside channel despite his previous partnership with Roberts.

This is an unprecedented move by a coach used to taking chances, a fact made clear 13 years ago during Gatland’s time in charge of Ireland when he capped Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Simon Easterby, John Hayes and Shane Horgan as a group in a Six Nations game against Scotland.

The New Zealander, too, has shown no fear of youth during his time in charge of Wales where he has installed a new generation of winners such as Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, George North and Alex Cuthbert, who have all been thrust in the Test arena from a very young age.

Does this speak to an ageist coach or one who seeks the comfort in fearless youth? Perhaps, but this weekend's line-up may have more to do with selecting a Welsh team with an upgrade at out half.

So far on this tour Gatland has been beset by injuries, but such is the nature of a Lions tour in the professional era and the facts remain that the Test team’s struggles with Australia have come from poor selection, conservatism and the belief that a team with a lack of ball carriers can compensate for the lack of set-piece dominance.

With Roberts, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau all in the team they will certainly be capable of blunt force, but O’Driscoll’s absence removes any subtlety from the group.

It is almost six weeks since the Lions have had players in camp and yet two games into a Test series the lineout appears as precarious as a game of roulette. Last weekend in Melbourne, despite the player’s own fighting spirit, Gatland selected a weaker scrummager in Mako Vunipola alongside a smaller hooker, Tom Youngs, in order to gain the upper hand in the loose. That tactic failed.

The scrum spluttered and, most importantly in a game lost by a point, coughed up penalties which were turned into points on the scoreboard.

Bereft of his main ball carrier in midfield in Roberts, Gatland chose to ignore O’Brien’s destructive ball-in-hand ability for the trust built up in Wales by Dan Lydiate. The same Dan Lydiate who spent the majority of the season out of action through injury and since returning in the PRO12 in late March for the Dragons did not play one single quality minute of rugby until he was selected to face Australia last weekend.

The Lions have had zero platforms to work from in 160 minutes of Test rugby so far, they are blessed to have Jonny Sexton at out half who has previously been exposed to such trying experiences in an Ireland shirt and were George North not on the pitch, you would fear the series would already be lost.

Now with the conservative and unimaginative tactics employed by Gatland failing (he sent his team out to sneak victory last week rather than go for the jugular) he has decided to dispense with his outside centre.

To put this in perspective the No 13 is usually as far away from the lineout and the scrum as the openside wing – if the systems inside him don’t work his game becomes immediately constricted.

If the player inside him fails to perform it also leaves him suffocated of attacking ball. Davies has not been good enough for the Lions so far, granted he is playing in the unfamiliar role of inside centre, however, it is Gatland’s responsibility to have selected more than one specialist No 12 in the touring party.

Davies has proved to be a liability in defence; last weekend he missed three tackles, including the failed attempt which allowed Adam Ashley-Cooper to score the match-winning try. Would O’Driscoll have stopped him so close to the line at that kind of speed? We cannot say for sure, but we can point you towards O’Driscoll’s game-winning hit on Zane Kirchner in similar circumstances when Ireland beat South Africa in Croke Park a few years ago.

In fact, O’Driscoll has not let a man past him in his now final Tests as and British and Irish Lion, making 23 tackles without fault.

In the Six Nations both centres had comparable tackling stats, the Welshman’s 90 per cent success alongside the Leinster man’s 89 per cent, but O’Driscoll had to make 33 tackles opposed to Davies 19, and don’t think for one minute that this Saturday’s decider won’t come down to making tackles.

O’Driscoll may not have the pace of 12 years ago but he can unlock defences with his angles and offloads – Davies’ only clean break of the Test series has come off an O’Driscoll offload. Decision making is also the Irish man’s forte. That comes with playing 133 Test matches, winning a Grand Slam and a few Triple Crowns, it comes with playing in eight Heineken Cup quarter-finals, six semis, and three finals.

It comes in winning three Heineken Cups, three Celtic League titles and an Amlin Cup.

Compare this to Davies who has not yet even played in a single Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Finally, in a team stripped of leaders like Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton, Gatland has dispensed with his greatest authority in O’Driscoll. The man he has leaned upon to help Warburton steer the group, the man whose wisdom he pushed to the fore in the build-up to last week’s Test.

The 34-year-old must have imagined that the call to attend a personal meeting with the head coach prior to the team announcement was to confirm his status as captain, it will have stunned him that he left the room as a former Lion.

When push has come to shove Gatland has selected 10 of his Welsh team, a figure that would most likely stand at 12 were Gethin Jenkins not injured and had Justin Tipuric’s form not been so poor on this tour. Ten Welsh men, what does this do for the concept of the Lions?

In that light you can argue that the New Zealander has not gambled at all, he has selected the core of the previous two Six Nations champions, but this is also the same Six Nations champions who have lost their previous eight games against Australia.

Dropping O’Driscoll is undoubtedly fraught with risk because the Australians genuinely still fear him, but Gatland is feeling the pressure and has reverted to type. Given James Horwill’s double escape from a disciplinary sentence and the losses of O’Connell, Warburton and now the exclusion of O’Driscoll, the momentum and the drive is firmly with the hosts.

No set-piece, no platforms and no O’Driscoll. If the Lions lose on Saturday, Gatland will have no excuses.

@AdamRedmond

 

Bookmark and Share