British and Irish Lions 2013: Facing a storm of criticism over dropping Brian O'Driscoll, Warren Gatland was correct on every call
Absurd pressure was placed on him by many who should have known better
Warren Gatland found it impossible not to reach for the martyr’s crown after his brilliant vindication in Sydney, which in some ways was a pity.
He had won so much high ground he might have transported himself to the Himalayas for the planting of the flag, but then his pique was understandable, given the absurd pressure placed on his shoulders before the most important match of his career. It was put there by so many who should have known better after his coach’s call that the legendary Brian O’Driscoll had to be discarded.
Yet, away from the scene of an extraordinary triumph, he might well have come up with a less bitter reaction.
Perversely, ironically, enough the hysteria that greeted his decision in the end helped to define the nature of one of the greatest victories and coaching achievements in the history of the Lions.
It showed precisely how much tribalism lies behind the old claim that once every four years the Lions become so close they might be living in each other’s skins.
They are supposed to surrender a big sense of themselves in the flow of perfectly dovetailed communal action.
That was not entirely evident in the expression and gestures of O’Driscoll’s compatriot Jonny Sexton after Gatland hauled him off soon after a missed tackle on James O’Connor that briefly had the potential to be fatal.
In that flashpoint, and the tide of irrational emotion that flowed out of Ireland, especially, when the coach restored Jamie Roberts at the expense of O’Driscoll, we had all the evidence we needed to believe that for the last few weeks the Kiwi Gatland has plainly been stepping close to one ugly controversy or another.
One English sneer was that he was investing too heavily in a failed Welsh team. Former England player Austin Healey claimed that, by leaving out O’Driscoll, Gatland had trampled upon and disfigured the Lions tradition. Former England captain Will Carling systematically dismantled the coach’s tour, and then there were Lions legends roaring at the front of the pack.
Keith Wood claimed that Gatland had made a terrible mistake in leaving out O’Driscoll, one that did a disservice to the Lions. Even more outrageously, the great Willie John McBride claimed: “The Australian media have convinced them to drop O’Driscoll, which I found amazing.”
Even more stunning, of course, is that a man of Gatland’s coaching nous and achievement should be trashed quite so profoundly. It is a bizarre idea, Gatland threading his way through a 100 theories and opinions and then reaching out for some consensus assessment from enemy opinion.
Instead of which, Gatland followed the classic course of a serious coach. He gauged his strengths and then did what all of his calling, at least those who do not live in a state of permanent terror, are sooner or later required to do.
This is to follow their instincts and knowledge and, sometimes in extreme cases, even their hunches. Gatland concluded that O’Driscoll, for all the meaning of his career, for all the depth of his competitive character, was no longer the man for a critical job.
He also picked an awful lot of Welshmen, which – as we were saying the other day – amounted to an awful lot of team.
The consequence, under the magnificent leadership of the understated but thunderously emphatic Alun Wyn Jones, was a team performance guaranteed not only to demolish a torrent of weak-minded criticism and, even worse, shrill xenophobia, but also to serve as a perfect model for a team gathering together and fashioned so quickly under immense pressure.
Under such a vast weight of second-guessing, the extent of Gatland’s shrewdness in selection was, by the end of the Wallaby slaughter, almost laughable. The combination of Jonathan Davies and Roberts made the O’Driscoll debate seem like a rather sad relic of sports history, though one alleviated by the graceful manner of the great man’s celebration of a victory to which he had no doubt pined to contribute.
Gatland was right on every issue. The weight of Mike Phillips was important around the scrum – and the selection of the injury-threatened Alex Corbisiero was looking like genius from the award of the first penalty.
There was, far from least, also the restoration of Toby Faletau, a monster of commitment. Faletau’s absence from the first two Tests was a source of bewilderment to many of his warmest admirers. Did Gatland err in seeking flashier alternatives; should he have recalled more vividly the consistent brilliance of the No 8’s performances in the last World Cup? If there was ever a time to ask this question, it was hardly in the glow of the Sydney deliverance.
Gatland had, after all, answered so many questions he might reasonably have been granted a moratorium.
There was no chance of the man of the series, Leigh Halfpenny, enjoying such relief. He is only marginally more voluble than his Welsh team-mate Faletau, and he insists that what eloquence he has is reserved for the field. On Saturday it flowed brilliantly, inexhaustibly, with the boot and on the hoof, and when he stepped forward to receive his award the expression of his coach told us much about a few harrowing days.
It was a mixture of relief and regard. If in so many respects, Gatland had been required to walk on eggshells, there was one supremely comfortable and soothing chore. It was writing down the name of Halfpenny.
Gatland had to make a late decision on Halfpenny before the last World Cup in New Zealand. The player carried a barely healed injury on the plane and said that he received the call he felt like crying out aloud.
The coach had been very sure about the need to take Halfpenny to New Zealand and there he saw him grow into the player who performed so superbly during these last few weeks. It is what coaches have to do. They have make the tough and tricky calls and then live with the consequences. Ideally, they also kick aside the most gratuitous of the criticism. If Gatland regrets not doing so this last weekend, he can maybe console himself with the fact that no one is perfect.
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