Axing Brian O'Driscoll: foolish or lion-hearted?
SHANE DE BARRA
OPINION: It takes a while for the dust to settle after a bombshell like the one Warren Gatland dropped on the international rugby public two days ago.
To most observers the culling of Brian O'Driscoll will be seen as purely trivial. They're right of course. At the end of the day no one's dead.
Neither has the Waikato man done anything wrong. Well, technically speaking at least. His job as British and Irish Lions coach is to win a test series, end of. History always looks more kindly on victors, no matter the method.
Take New Zeland as an example. For all their talk about attacking flair in the run-up, the All Blacks won a Rugby Wold Cup final by keeping it tight and hanging on for dear life against the French. Now they're world champions. Do you think Sir Graham Henry really cares how it panned out in the end? Not a jot. They won, end of story.
It's important to understand why there has been so much raw emotion and anger on display from fans and former Lions greats alike in the wake of O'Driscoll's axing.
The man is legend, pure and simple. In terms of stature in world rugby only Richie McCaw, and perhaps John Smit, stand on an equal footing with him.
Kiwis might point to Dan Carter, the English Jonny Wilkinson, but neither of them have had the constant pressures of international captaincy to deal with at the same time. World class players yes, but not leaders of the ilk of O'Driscoll and McCaw.
In fact, that O'Driscoll has always managed to shine so brightly on the international stage despite playing in an Irish team that - 2009 aside - constantly underachieved despite an abundance of talent, might even tip the scales slighty in his favour. That's a contentious debate, however.
In Ireland, of course, the incident has been talked about as a national tragedy, but there are sad reasons for this that transcend the nation's obsession with sport.
In a country where a population has been so badly let down by its political leaders and institutions, figures such as O'Driscoll are beacons that people cling to.
The reaction's been totemic. Brian's their boy. Not even the risible wretches of the tabloid press can get their hands on him when he goes out for a pint.
Sometimes legends are what they seem. O'Driscoll's dignified response and attitude since his culling are a testament to this.
For the Irish, however, this wasn't just an axing of their beloved hero, this was a another blow to a national physche that's already been well dented.
In fact had Gatland worn a pin-stripe suit, surrounded himself with a posse of IMF nerds and delivered his team selection in a German accent, the news would perhaps have been easier to take.
That's how bad news is delivered in Ireland these days.
Again none of this need concern Gatland, his job description is simple: win. There's nothing like a Lions team selection to bring out the nationalists.
He's owes O'Driscoll nothing. It's worth remembering it was the Kiwi who gave the Irish talisman his test debut all those years ago.
He stood proud in Paris as O'Driscoll cut the French to shreds in back 2000 on his watch. Steely as he may seem, this will have been the hardest coaching decision Gatland's ever had to make. That he's had the balls to do it is admirable, even - dare I say it - lion-hearted.
But is it foolhardy? Gatland's record against the Wallabies is abysmal. Had O'Driscoll's defence not been so rock solid in the first and second tests this weekend's game would probably be played with only pride at stake.
True, O'Dricoll's centre partner Johnathan Davies played out of his natural No 13 role but his failure to read O'Driscoll's running lines and defensive calls is hardy the Irishman's fault.
How can it improve with the one-dimensional Jamie Roberts? He's not played for weeks and will surley be smashed to high heaven by the Wallabies.
O'Driscoll is hard as nails. He's floored Springboks, All Blacks and gnarled French forwards in his time. He could take the battering and more but still turn a game on its head with a moment of genius.
Having arrived in Australia with three tour captains in their midst, the Lions take to the field on Saturday night with none. That they go into battle without one by choice is hard to fathom.
When captain elect Alun Wyn-Jones sat before a stunned media gathering on Wednesday he hardly filled Lions fans with confidence.
He's asked to be judged as a player, not a leader. On what planet does he live? The team he leads out tomorrow night are heading into the biggest test match of their careers. Test rugby is about leadership. Think of McCaw's heroics two year ago or John Eales on the 2001 tour.
Few players in test rugby offer leadership that puts their side at ease. O'Driscoll has it in spades. So too does McCaw.
Carter, Smit, Paul O'Connell, Martin Johnson and Victor Matfield could also claim membership of that exclusive club.
If the team doesn't have a leader, does that not make them rudderless? And even if the Lions win, can Gatland be seen as anything more than a go-for-broke gambler?
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