Defining night for Kiwi rugby coaches' careers

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2013
Lions celebrate
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Injured captain Sam Warburton holds the series trophy after victory at ANZ Stadium.
Brian O'Driscoll
Reuters
KIWI BLASTED: Warren Gatland has left some extremely upset Irish rugby fans in the wake of his decision to axe Brian O'Driscoll from his side for the final test.

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Oone of the great fallacies of sport is that the result justifies the means. If the Lions win tonight, people will hail Warren Gatland as a visionary, as the man who had the courage to drop Brian O'Driscoll and pick 10 Welshmen, despite the outcry he knew it would cause.

But if Australia wins, does that therefore make Robbie Deans correct to persist with James O'Connor at No 10, despite his evident unsuitability for the role. Of course it does not.

The truth is that whichever New Zealander coaches the winning team will do so despite his mistakes. Both Gatland and Deans have a little way to go as coaches before they can match up to Graham Henry, Dave Rennie or Wayne Smith.

My reservations about Gatland's selection of 10 Welshmen has nothing to do with quotas or prejudice. In 1971 Carwyn James, a proud Welshman who promoted Welsh nationalist members of parliament, picked nine of his countrymen to play for the Lions against the All Blacks in the first test in New Zealand. James picked them because they were the best players.

But the 10 who will start against Australia on Saturday for the Lions are not all the best players. Indeed, it would probably be 12 starters if Gethin Jenkins and Sam Warburton had not been injured.

This does not make sense for one very good reason. Wales have a terrible record against Australia compared to England, Ireland or even Scotland.

The Welsh have won two of their previous 23 tests against Australia and the last time they won Down Under was in 1969. Scotland have won their last two matches against Australia, England have won two of their last three and were victorious in Sydney in 2010. Ireland have won two of their last five and drawn one, including the big win in the World Cup.

These are the reasons why the former Australia wing David Campese claimed the Lions had just "handed the series to Australia", and then accused Gatland of panic.

The manifestly superior record of the other nations is not down to a statistical fluke over such a period of time. It is down to personnel, playing styles and an ability to travel.

Gatland's preference for Jonathan Davies over Brian O'Driscoll is particularly baffling. The 1974 Lions captain, Willie John McBride, said: "I was absolutely gutted. The first thing that came into my mind was that Robbie Deans, Australia's coach, must be laughing all the way."

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Former Ireland captain Keith Wood called it a "terrible mistake". Even Dan Carter tweeted, "There must be some angry Irish waking up to see Brian O'Driscoll not playing this weekend. He should be captain."

But as we have seen for Ireland, O'Driscoll is too far from the action to be a top captain in the modern game. By the time O'Driscoll had the ear of Romain Poite on Saturday, James Horwill and Will Genia would have already declared Australia to be an independent state. Alun Wyn Jones was the right choice as skipper, but to drop O'Driscoll altogether is a nonsense.

Jonathan Davies was the difference between winning and losing last weekend. He missed the tackle for the Wallabies try, dropped a ball with no-one near him and kicked away a piece of prime attacking possession. Yet Gatland talks up Davies' performance against New South Wales as though it is relevant to this week's test.

Gatland said of dropping O'Driscoll: "It's only hard because you are making the decision using your head and not your heart.

"Our kicking game was poor last week. We wanted to put the ball behind them a little bit which we didn't do well enough and Jonathan is a left-foot kicking option for us. He didn't get a lot of ball to go forward last week but when he did carry he made a couple of good dents in them."

The return of Jamie Roberts, the only genuine second-five in the Lions party, is a big plus for Gatland. At last the Lions can attack the inside channel, pulling in defenders and allowing Mike Phillips and others to go again. There is, however, the worry that Roberts is not match sharp and had a shocker when he came back from injury last time, spilling ball after ball.

The return of George Smith is also as big a plus for Australia. Deans said: "His expertise in the contact zone, where timing, judgment and physicality is everything, is going to be critical."

We always knew that this series was going to be tight, desperately tight. The aggregate score currently stands at Australia 37 Lions 38.

John Eales said a while ago: "If he [Gatland] does decide to run with a Welsh-dominated side, that country's poor record against the Wallabies might be more significant than he would like to concede." 

- The Dominion Post

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