Warren Gatland has made quite a statement in dropping the one player people thought would be undroppable after injuries to the other two on-field leaders, Sam Warburton and Paul O’Connell. In leaving out Brian O’Driscoll he has lost the only other player who had a wealth of captaincy experience at international level, and as good a player as Alun-Wyn Jones is, he simply cannot point to this level of experience.
The other slightly surprising side of this decision is that he has not been playing badly. Granted, he hasn’t been the attacking force that he once was, but then which of the backs – other than George North – has really sparkled with ball in hand? Jonathan Davies had a great game against the Waratahs but has been fairly pedestrian other than that – especially last week in the second test. Jamie Roberts’ selection is hugely based on reputation, given that he hasn’t had a good game since Hong Kong. If he is there on reputation, why not O’Driscoll? Their partnership in 2009 was incredibly successful, and most people were hoping it would be rekindled at some point.
The other issue here is that the Welsh duo will not scare the Australians in the slightest. Tuilagi starting may never have been on the cards, but you have to question why. There is no other player in the Lions squad – North aside, once again – than can conjure something from nothing in quite the same way. Likewise, O’Driscoll’s heroics down the years – in this country in the same jersey in 2001 in particular – give him a kind of aura that the Aussies would never ignore. They respect him. The same cannot be said of Roberts and Davies – as good as they are – because the men in gold have simply beaten them plenty of times. There is no fear there.
All this outcry over O’Driscoll’s omission has, however, masked some other intriguing and potentially worrying selection decisions. Richard Hibbard comes in at hooker in place of Tom Youngs, who must be the most unlucky of all the dropped players. The England hooker has had a fine tour and has been comfortably the most successful line-out thrower. Hibbard has been selected for one reason – he is bigger.
This trend continues into the back-row. Dan Lydiate is a big man who loves to tackle, and Sean O’Brien is one of the best ball-carriers in the squad. Together, however, the combination lacks the guile that the inclusion of Croft or Tipuric would have added. The line-out is sure to take a hit as well, although the scrum looks set to be very powerful.
Toby Faletau’s inclusion is the correct one, given Heaslip’s questionable form and the overall balance of the back-row, not to mention the big Tongan-come-Welshman’s exemplary performances this tour. Along with the other two it is a back-row combo brimming with power and a high work-rate. Mike Phillips getting the nod is another case of power and reputation trumping form and pace/guile. Ben Youngs can feel hugely aggrieved to not even be in the squad, after being forced to play a way that is alien to him last week. From Gatland’s point of view, though, he does not fit the mould of what he wants to his scrum-half to do.
The bench is also a little worrying. While the inclusion of Tuilagi is to be commended – he should have been given a go last week – Conor Murray’s selection is not right. As well as he played off the bench last week, his style is too similar to that of Phillips and Youngs would have been the right call alongside one of either Murray or Phillips. Richie Gray gets the token Scottish bench spot – if Corbisiero had failed to recover and Grant had been there, would he would have been sacrificed for Evans? The most worrying thing about the bench is the lack of a plan B – if Gatland’s game-plan isn’t working after 60 minutes, where are the players with a bit of spark that will make a difference?
What it comes down to is that Gatland has given up all pretence of wanting to play any other way than how he did with Wales. Hibbard over Tom Youngs; O’Brien over Tipuric; Phillips over Ben Youngs; Davies over O’Driscoll; it is a selection based purely on power, designed to bash the Australians into the ground. If it works – even if it is a dire game that the Lions sneak by one point – nobody will care. All that will be remembered will be the win.
If, however, the Lions lose and play as we expect them to, Gatland has some serious questions to answer over his selection decisions. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43