Gatland springs major surprises for final test
SHANE DE BARRA
Who do you want to win the deciding test between the Lions and the Wallabies?
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has put his reputation on the line by making sweeping changes to his side for Saturday night's series-deciding test against the Wallabies in Sydney.
Already without the irreplaceable experience of veteran lock Paul O'Connell and the energy of tour captain Sam Warburton, Gatland has boldly decided to omit talismanic Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll - who was widely tipped to lead the team - from his squad completely.
O'Driscoll, who has captained at test level on a world record 84 occasions and would have provided ample experience on the field, is replaced in the backline by Welshman Jamie Roberts, who missed the first two tests with injury.
The utility role on the bench has gone to England's Manu Tuilagi.
"Brian was disappointed but he appreciated that he was spoken to before the team announcement," Gatland said at the team announcement today.
"It's the first time that a coach has ever made the decision with him in 15 years of rugby.
"Jamie is back fit and has been given the nod in terms of his partnership with [fellow Welshman] Davies."
The Lions will be led by Welshman Alun Wyn Jones as they chase their first series victory since 1997's tour of South Africa.
"It wasn't about picking a captain but the best team. Then the question was who would do the best job once we'd picked the team," Gatland added.
"Alun just leads from the front. He was one of the first names on the sheet in the first test and he will lead by example. He is an important part of the engine room that needs to fire for us on Saturday."
Wyn Jones will scrum-down in a pack that contains four changes from last weekend's 16-15 loss to the Wallabies in Melbourne which levelled the series at one win apiece.
In the front row England's Mako Vunipola takes his place in the reserves to make way for fit again compatriot Alex Corbisiero, while Richard Hibbard takes over at hooker from Tom Youngs, who also drops to the bench.
Irish powerhouse Sean O'Brien has been given the nod at No 7 in place of Warburton but there is no room for his Ireland colleague Jamie Heaslip who drops out of the test squad to be replaced by Toby Faletau.
Elsewhere in the backs Mike Phillips comes in at No 9 to replace England's Ben Youngs, who like O'Driscoll and Heaslip, also drops out of the match day squad.
However, the decision to go with Ireland's Connor Murray on the bench as back-up to Phillips will be seen as a curious one given both players have a very similar playing style.
Gatland, however, seems to have courage in his convictions: "There's been a lot of competition in this squad. But the changes are going to strengthen the team."
Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Johnny Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, AW Jones (c), Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Sean O'Brien, Toby Faletau. Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric, Connor Murray, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi
- Fairfax Media