O'Driscoll dropped as Gatland risks it all with Welsh Lions
Coach Warren Gatland 'puts reputation on line' with squad dominated by players from a single nation
WARREN GATLAND has gone Welsh in his quest to beat the Wallabies on Saturday and secure a series victory for the Lions. The starting XV for the deciding Test in Sydney against Australia features ten Welshman, including new captain Alun Wyn Jones.
The second row skippers the side in the absence of the injured Sam Warburton with veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll (above) – widely tipped to fill the role – dropped not just from the team but also the squad.
Not since the Lions played Australia in 1950 has a XV been so dominated by one country. On that occasion ten Welshmen were picked and history repeats itself 63 years later in the team announced by Gatland today.
In doing so, the Wales coach has put his reputation on the line. If the Lions win the third Test on Saturday, and with it the series, he'll be feted as the first coach to win a Lions rubber in 16 years; lose, and Gatland will be crucified by the press for his selections and strategy.
In all Gatland has made six changes to the XV that lost the second Test last Saturday. Prop Alex Corbisiero has recovered from a calf injury and retakes his place in the front row instead of Mako Vunipola, while Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips comes in for Ben Youngs after recovering from the knee problem that kept him out of the second Test. Elsewhere and Richard Hibbard replaces Tom Youngs at hooker – the Welshman's greater bulk deemed more important to the Lions' cause than the Englishman's industry in the loose – while Wales' Toby Faletau is preferred at No 8 in place of Jamie Heaslip.
Irish flanker Sean O'Brien is given the responsibility of filling in for Warburton and O'Driscoll's place in the team is taken by Jamie Roberts, who will line up in the centre alongside compatriot Jonathan Davies. The return of Roberts is welcome news for the Lions but it's also a gamble by Gatland.
He did something similar last week, bringing in Tommy Bowe on the wing despite the fact the Irishman hadn't played for three weeks because of a broken hand. Bowe looked off the pace in Melbourne and the Lions can't afford to have anything less than a 100 percent fit Roberts. The hamstring he damaged three weeks ago in the victory over the NSW Waratahs is reportedly healed, in which case the Lions will expect to see the 17 ½ stone Welshman bursting through the Australian midfield.
"Brian was disappointed but he appreciated that he was spoken to before the team announcement," said Gatland when asked about demoting O'Driscoll, the first time the 34-year-old Irishman has ever been dropped in his illustrious Test career.
"It's the first time that a coach has ever made the decision with him in 15 years of rugby. It's not easy for that to be the first time but he is still going to be very important for us in the next 72 hours in terms of his experience and leadership."
Gatland admitted that Roberts had been chosen "because of his partnership with Davies". In other words he's gone with what he knows best – Wales, and the players that in the last six seasons have won two Grand Slams and the 2013 Six Nations title.
Trouble is, during all that time, Wales have played Australia nine times, and won just the once.
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales)Replacements: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England)