Analysis: Warren Gatland the gambler makes big calls for Lions' big game
By dropping three members of a winning team for bank-breaking meeting with Wallabies, he has certainly gambled his shirt
Win or lose, the Lions coach Warren Gatland will leave Australia with a reputation as a high roller. He cannot fairly be accused of dabbling recklessly in some wild form of casino selection - former All Black hookers tend to have a firm grasp of reality, and there is generally some method to their madness - but by dropping three members of a winning team for Saturday's bank-breaking meeting with the Wallabies, he has certainly gambled his shirt, if not emptied his pockets.
Gatland openly admitted that he had taken a "calculated risk" by demoting Tom Croft, his most athletic line-out operator, from a pack already shorn of two hugely effective tight forwards in the prop Alex Corbisiero and the lock Paul O'Connell. Dan Lydiate, a very different kind of blind-side flanker to the Leicester man, will start in the back row, presumably with orders to cramp the style of the wondrous Wallaby half-back Will Genia.
Which leads us directly to another big call: the decision to leave out the experienced, aggressive and unusually powerful Mike Phillips and replace him at scrum-half with the sharper, faster, more complete but comparatively pipsqueak-ish Ben Youngs. This was the move that had Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, raising an eyebrow. However the Lions try to play it around the fringes this weekend, it will be different to their approach last weekend.
If Gatland was crystal clear in his reasoning on the Croft issue - "It's a real do or die match for Australia and it will be a battle out there, so we've added to our physicality by including Dan and we'll have an explosive option off the bench in Tom," he explained - he was considerably more opaque on the No 9 issue. After confirming that Phillips was suffering from knee trouble and had done precious little training since leaving Brisbane, he insisted the Welshman had been "fit for selection". He also said that while tomorrow's game was all that mattered, he wanted to ensure Phillips was "right for next week" in Sydney. That's that sorted, then.
Phillips was a long way short of his bull-like best six days ago: not for the first time in recent years, the brilliant Genia won the individual contest hands down. But if the Lions are expecting a war, why not stick with a player who can mix it with the best of them? As he demonstrated in South Africa four years ago, the man from Carmarthen is not backwards in coming forwards when the fur starts to fly, and is more than capable of looking after himself into the bargain.
The other changes had been on the cards for days: the fully recovered Tommy Bowe for the slightly unfortunate Alex Cuthbert on the right wing; Mako Vunipola for the stricken Corbisiero on the loose-head side of the scrum; and Geoff Parling for the orthopedically challenged Paul O'Connell in the engine room. Parling's line-out expertise may compensate for Croft's absence, but it is significant that when England play, the red-rose coaches invariably pick both.
And what if Parling or his fellow lock Alun Wyn Jones should bite the dust early in the game? With no sign of Ian Evans or Richie Gray among the replacements, Croft would find himself lumbered with a long and painful stint in the second row. He is not a complete stranger to life in the darkened recesses, but is he really equipped for this sort of malarkey at Lions level?
Whatever the logic behind his selection, Gatland was in no doubt yesterday as to the importance of this 80-minute act of pure sporting theatre. "We're all aware of the interest created by the Lions, of the positive impact we have on the game going forward," he remarked. "But this is not a normal touring team travelling around, it's a machine: it has taken two years of planning to get us where we are, there's a lot of people and equipment involved and there's no hiding the fact that we need a series victory. I don't care how ugly this weekend's game turns out to be. I'm just desperate to win it.
"I've just been speaking to Brian O'Driscoll (the great Irish centre, participating in his fourth and last Lions tour). He came out to this country as a 21-year-old and when the Test series slipped, he thought: 'I'll get another chance.' Now, he's on the cusp of his last chance. This is the message he's been communicating to the other players: don't leave this chance behind, don't waste the moment.
"We're aware of the weight of expectation. What we can't do is let it dominate our thinking. We're talking about a group of young men who have the opportunity to do something that could potentially change their lives, could open things up in a lot of avenues, but we can't allow that to consume us. We have to go out there mentally strong."
On Wednesday night, Gatland met the South African referee Craig Joubert to discuss the usual subjects: principally the scrum and tackle areas. Yesterday, the coach wisely talked him up as the whistling fraternity's version of a secular saint.
"What I like about Craig is that he's personable," Gatland said. "He has a good feel for the game and he's honest. If he makes a mistake he puts his hand up. You can't ask for more than that. He's a guy who brings a human element to the job." Perfect. That should be worth a penalty shot or two.
There again, the cautious but crafty Deans has also been talking to Joubert. To whom did he listen most intently? We will find out tomorrow.
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