Any coach bold enough to drop a player as revered as the great Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll from a Lions Test team at the tipping point of a series against Australia is unlikely to quake at the thought of sacrificing a sacred cow ahead of a World Cup – especially if the specimen concerned is a little long in the tooth and entirely out of sorts. But two sacred cows? Three? A cull on this scale is either brave or foolhardy… or maybe both.
Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, consigned well over 200 international caps’ worth of experience to the garbage can of Red Dragon history by sending the outside-half James Hook, the scrum-half Mike Phillips and the hooker Richard Hibbard – touring Lions all – back to their clubs. In so doing, he confirmed that short of an injury crisis in their respective positions, they would play no part in the forthcoming global tournament.
The fact that Gatland has previous in this area counts in his favour, for his demotion of O’Driscoll ahead of the Lions’ winner-take-all meeting with the Wallabies in Sydney a little over two years ago was vindicated in spades as the British and Irish side took the spoils in record-breaking style.
But the coach was not immune to the unprecedented level of stick he received after revealing that selection. Far from it. Among his foremost critics on social media was the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, which must have made him think a bit.
True to the spirit of the age, there was a hostile response from the keyboard warrior brigade following the announcement. But having been through the fires once, Gatland was better able to withstand the heat generated by any marginalisation of high-profile personnel. And anyway, the hard-bitten New Zealander thought long and hard about the balance between form and know-how before deciding that the first should trump the second.
Hook, a Lions tourist in South Africa in 2009, has been in a strange place vis-à-vis the Wales environment for years now, but his versatility – he can perform both centre roles and fill the full-back position as well as pull the strings from No 10 – made him a prime candidate for a place among the 31-man elite for next month’s competition, at which Wales must find a way past either the hosts England or the two-time champions Australia just to make it into the knockout stage.
But when Gatland’s public response to the Gloucester midfielder’s erratic effort in last Saturday’s warm-up game with Ireland at the Millennium Stadium was not to mention it at all, the signs were there for all to see.
Phillips, who, like Hibbard, started that Lions Test in Sydney in 2013, performed significantly more poorly than Hook six days ago: there was no zip or zest to his rugby; still worse, there was barely a flash of the trademark aggression of old.
With Rhys Webb developing into a genuine international-class No 9, Lloyd Williams climbing back towards the heights of 2012 and the young Scarlets half-back Gareth Davies impressing some very good judges, the occasionally troublesome senior citizen was always at risk of being pensioned off.
Hibbard will be the most bemused of the three thirtysomethings who found themselves on the sharp end of Gatland’s axe, for the hooking position is far from the strongest in the current Welsh set-up – as the coach, an All Black No 2 of long standing in his playing days, knows better than anyone.
But the Lion’s questionable fitness levels, along with his dodgy line-out throwing, relegated him to the bottom of the pile, beneath the excellent Scarlets forward Ken Owens, a relative novice in Scott Baldwin and a complete rookie in Kristian Dacey.
Five other, far less celebrated players were cut from the party: the Ospreys forwards Nicky Smith, Rory Thornton and Dan Baker; the Cardiff Blues outside-half Rhys Patchell; and the Newport-Gwent Dragons centre Jack Dixon. It leaves Gatland with a 38-strong group for the final stage of his preparations, seven of whom will ultimately miss out.
Right now, it seems that at least one of the newcomers handed a Test debut last Saturday, the Gloucester back-rower Ross Moriarty, has a very decent chance of being a successful “bolter”.
Among the other fresh faces still in the mix are the Dragons back-line pairing of Hallam Amos and Tyler Morgan, the Exeter prop Tomas Francis, the Ospreys wing Eli Walker and the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper playmaker Matthew Morgan, currently on the books at Bristol.
“It’s been a difficult task,” Gatland confessed. “All the players involved over the last eight weeks – at our camps in Switzerland and Qatar, and in our work back in Wales – have put in a huge amount of effort. The intensity and dedication has been really impressive and that has made our job harder, but as we continue to move into the rugby-focused phase of our training, it’s important we get the numbers down.”
Wales have a return meeting with Ireland on 29 August, this time in Dublin, followed by a home warm-up with Italy seven days later. Between those two fixtures, Gatland will make his final call, and while he knows he will field a formidable first-choice XV if the main men stay fit, the absence of the three old hands means that the reinforcements may well look callow in the extreme.
Silenced Dragons: Wales’ dropped men
Wales caps 94 (45 points)
Debut v Romania (h), 2003
Part of Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 and member of 2013 Six Nations winners. Five British & Irish Lions caps.
Wales caps 38 (10 points)
Debut v Argentina (a), 2006
Part of victorious Six Nations squad in 2012 and 2013 and has three Lions caps.
Wales caps 78 (352 points)
Debut v Argentina (a), 2006
Featured in Grand Slam campaign of 2008 and has been to two World Cups.Reuse content