BRITISH and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland received almost universal criticism yesterday after springing one of the biggest selection surprises in the team’s history and dropping centre Brian O’Driscoll.
The Ireland veteran had been expected to be named captain for Saturday’s series-deciding third and final Test in Sydney, having taken over the leadership when injury afflicted Sam Warburton late in the second Test.
Instead the 34-year-old is not even among the replacements, with Gatland preferring to switch Jonathan Davies to outside-centre and recall another Welshman – one of 10 in the XV – in Jamie Roberts.
Now it is not only a first Lions series victory this century that rests on the finale to the tour of Australia; Gatland’s reputation also hangs in the balance following his spectacular gamble.
Former Australia wing David Campese quipped that Gatland had “handed the series to Australia” having “panicked”. He added: “The majority of players are Welsh and while they obviously know what they’re doing, where is the X-factor?”
Ex-Lions and Ireland hooker Keith Wood called O’Driscoll’s axing “a terrible mistake” and accused Gatland of “missing what the Lions is about”. He added: “O’Driscoll has been quiet in the two Tests but at every stage he has been the clarion call once [vice-captain] Paul O’Connell got injured.”
Willie John McBride, the former Ireland and series-winning Lions captain, said Australia coach Robbie Deans would be “laughing”. “But you live and die by the team you pick so we will see what Saturday brings.”
Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones takes over as captain while England prop Alex Corbisiero and Wales hooker Richard Hibbard join the front row.
Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Welshman Toby Faletau reinforce the back row and Mike Phillips is preferred at scrum-half.
THIRD TEST TEAM
Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau
Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi