Robbie Deans and Warren Gatland – these two curmudgeonly Kiwis have plenty in common. They are both in charge of nations foreign to that of their birth, and in Gatland’s case a traditional touring side in the Lions. They are both fairly prickly characters, and have both been under the cosh recently for their selection decisions. They both clearly have their selection favourites (Mike Phillips, Kurtley Beale), and those they don’t trust or believe in (Justin Tipuric, Quade Cooper).
This week, however, they have taken entirely different stances when it comes to their most experienced players. The decision to drop O’Driscoll has already been done to death in column inches so there’s no need to go back over it here; suffice to say that there has been many a raised eyebrow (and in some cases significantly more) over Gatland’s decision to drop easily his most experienced player. Had Paul O’Connell or Sam Warburton, the other two members of the Lions’ leadership trinity, been playing, this decision would have been more understandable. Without them, however, the Lions look to be lacking experience and leadership – a void that O’Driscoll would surely have filled.
Deans, on the other hand, has brought back Wallaby legend George Smith, a man who has not played test match rugby for four years. He has recognised that in the nerve-shredding cauldron that is a series-defining test match, there is no substitute for experience. Smith was one of the architects of the Lions downfall here in 2001, when the Wallabies came back from 1-0 down to claim the series 2-1, winning the final test 29-23 in Sydney.
Will history repeat itself this weekend? Deans obviously thinks that with Smith in the team the chance of that happening is greater. The Brumbies flanker becomes only the fourth Wallaby to play the Lions in two seperate series, joining Tony ‘Slaggy’ Miller, John Thornett and Peter Johnson, who were all involved in the 1959 and 1967 tours. Smith’s seems even more of an achievement, given that 12 rather than eight years have gone by since his last involvement against the Lions.
So 110 Wallaby caps plays 125 Ireland and eight Lions caps. Which decision will be the right one? Will the experience of Smith see the Wallabies over the line, or will he look tired and off the pace? Will the Lions lack leadership and a talisman to turn to if they are trailing, or would BOD just have slowed them down? Only time will now tell, but whichever way it goes it could be the defining moment in these two coaches’ careers.
Deans is already fairly unloved (to put it mildly) by much of the Australian public, and if this decision backfires and he becomes the first coach to lose to the Lions for 16 years, it may well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Win, however, and he may buy himself a stay of execution. And with the 2015 World Cup already looming on the horizon, it would be madness to sack your coach much later than the end of this season. There is so much more on the line here for Deans than just a Lions series.
And what of Gatland? His selection has come in for fierce criticism from all corners, and not just for dropping O’Driscoll. The Welsh will always stand by him – and quite rightly – for what he has achieved with them, but how he is remembered in Lions history will be decided on Saturday. Sir Clive Woodward will forever be remembered as the World Cup winning coach that allowed English bias to infiltrate his Lions selections on a disastrous tour to New Zealand in 2005. Should Gatland and the Lions lose this weekend, having plumped for many of the Welsh players that he trusts, similar criticism, whether rightly or wrongly, will surely be aimed at him. It is why Woodward is largely unloved outside of England, but is still held in high regard within its borders. Ian McGeechan, on the other hand, is a legend throughout the British Isles and Ireland. Perhaps it is just because as a Scot he could never be accused of bias…
So with so much on the line for both coaches it is fascinating that one has put his faith in a legend while the other has dropped a legend. Whose choice will turn out to be correct?
For both sets of fans now, what’s done is done. Selections have been made and for all the debate over so-and-so being picked ahead of so-and-so, all we can do is get behind the men in red on Saturday and hope they can end the long 16-year wait for a series win. In this battle of the Kiwis, let’s hope it’s Gatland that comes out on top.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43