The Lions coach, Warren Gatland, found himself at the centre of a maelstrom of controversy last night after dropping Brian O'Driscoll, one of British Isles rugby's heroic figures, from Saturday's do-or-die Test with the Wallabies in Sydney. One high-profile former Lion, the two-tour hooker Keith Wood, described the decision as "a terrible mistake" and accused Gatland of presiding over a Welsh monopoly.
Gatland, a New Zealander, has been coaching Wales since 2007 and included 15 of his players in the 37-man party for this tour of Australia. That domination raised few eyebrows at the time – the Welsh won a third Six Nations title in six years by thrashing England in March and reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup in 2011 – but, by picking 10 of his charges for Saturday's decisive match, he infuriated many Lions followers.
Particularly those in Ireland, who venerate O'Driscoll as a rugby-playing deity. Wood, who played alongside the Dubliner when the Lions went close to beating the Wallabies here in 2001, was flabbergasted, saying that the selection had left him "totally at a loss".
Wood admitted that the ageing O'Driscoll had been "quiet" in the opening Tests – a narrow victory in Brisbane and an even closer defeat in Melbourne – but insisted he should have been placed at the heart of this decisive game rather than been dropped from the match-day squad altogether. "He has been the clarion call since Paul O'Connell picked up his injury," Wood argued, referring to the experienced Irish lock who suffered a broken arm in the first game of the series.
"You could say Gatland is picking on form," Wood added, "but he has chosen an unbelievably direct team with very little guile, specifically to play to a game plan that does not suit a lot of players but suits the Welsh, which is why there are 10 of them in the side. The Lions is about getting the best quality out of the players of these islands, not about having an intransigent plan that is simplistic and low on subtlety."
O'Driscoll has played on three previous Lions treks, and this will be his last. He suffered a final Test defeat here in '01 and was an influential part of the team that went close to prevailing in South Africa four years ago. When he captained the Lions in New Zealand in 2005 and was considered the best attacking outside centre in the sport, he was invalided out of the tour following one of the most infamous assaults in recent rugby history in the opening Test.
He is no longer a serious attacking threat to the best sides in the world and, for this reason, Gatland has recalled Jamie Roberts and shifted Jonathan Davies, the Lions' inside centre in the first two Tests, to his favoured outside position – which happens to be O'Driscoll's role.
Roberts admitted that Gatland had made a "big call". O'Driscoll described himself as "totally gutted". If the tourists are heavily defeated in Sydney on Saturday, he will not be the only one feeling that way.Reuse content