WHEN WARREN GATLAND was appointed Lions coach, few argued. Few could.
As a coach, he is a walking success story.
Wasps’ rise to European champions is his story. Wales had managed a Grand Slam before he arrived, but Gatland brought a sense of stability to a land of meteoric rises and falls.
The manner in which – oddly in Gatland’s absence – Wales stormed back from defeat to Ireland to win this year’s Six Nations only gave rise to satisfaction that the Kiwi was the right man to mix the best team in Europe with the rest of England, Ireland and Scotland.
Perhaps it was time away from coaching, multiplied external pressures or both. But something changed for Warren Gatland in recent months.
He may well mutter that dropping a 34-year-old centre is the brave call. But if that’s the case, it’s the first brave call he has made on this tour.
No, a brave call would have been picking the best back row and sticking by them. Bravery would have been calling upon Andrew Sheridan when Cian Healy and (the man who Sheridan keeps out of the Toulon side) Gethin Jenkins hobbled home injured.
Bravery could have meant sticking by a side who lost by one point and looking inwards for the reasons that deficit appeared. Bravery would lie in not criticising your team for their ‘game management’ in a winning Test so that they come out a week later and kick the leather off the ball.
Bravery, is what Wales did against England in the Six Nations decider. Gatland has shirked and fallen between two stools.
We all argued long and hard over the 37-man squad when it was announced. Gatland did well to defuse talk of Jonny Wilkinson’s absence by saying a back row would be his first call-up. Poor Chris Robshaw was promised the first stand-by position; and that was the start of Gatland’s indecision over the back-row.
Confusion reigned over the make-up of Gatland’s ideal six-seven-eight combo. Tom Croft and now Jamie Heaslip were backed and promptly sacked, casualties of the imbalance in the most crucial part of the field. The necessity to pick Sam Warburton as captain presented a problem that would colour every other selection quandary.
Admittedly the openside excelled during the defeat in Melbourne, but that 70 minutes display came at the expense of untold preparation time for the premier number seven available, Justin Tipuric. Even in Warburton’s absence, Tipuric has been left to pick up splinters while Sean O’Brien endeavours to carry the fight from his regular, but still not his best, position.
We could go on through the names Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Shane Williams, Tom Court, but Gatland has today put his entire reputation on the line by bringing an axe to O’Driscoll’s Lions career.
This is not about sentiment, it’s not even about a Lions coach dropping ‘one of our boys’. Nobody is saying that O’Driscoll is at his peak. He is now less than 12 months from retirement and the days of accelerating clean through gaps to advance 50 metres upfield are long gone. This centre over Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi would have brought a sense of thought to the red tourists, never mind the his vast experience.
Instead, Roberts and his tender hamstring will be fed ball after ball to carry into a green and gold wall. While in defence the hope will be that Davies going back to his preferred position with a familiar partner will limit the confusion over running lanes.
One big decision in the number 13 jersey is a thin end to the wedge of odd calls from the Kiwi. Yet he is still 80 minutes away from calling them justified.
Crazy. Too crazy to work.