The notion held by some media pundits and fans – not all of them Irish – that Brian O’Driscoll is a rugby martyr because he was dropped from the Lions side for the third Test against Australia by Warren Gatland is nonsense. Simply put, there are holes in every part of the shroud they are trying to drape around O’Driscoll.
The most significant ones are those concerning his form on the 2013 tour, and in the Six Nations that preceded it. O’Driscoll did not have an auspicious Six Nations, and based purely on form during that tournament rather than past laurels he was fortunate to win one of the four centre places in the Lions party.
It is also impossible for even the most vociferous BoD fan to claim that he was the outstanding centre over the course of the six weeks the Lions were in Australia, or the most influential.
Those plaudits go to Jonathan Davies. And with BOD’s old 2009 Test partner, Jamie Roberts looking strong, it is unlikely, had Roberts not torn a hamstring against the Waratahs, that O’Driscoll would have added to his tally of starts on this 2013 tour by being paired with Davies in the first two Tests.
This is understandable because the most complete midfield – and backline – performance of the tour came against the Waratahs, when Roberts and Davies were paired together. After the match O’Driscoll himself proclaimed the Scarlets No.13’s stellar performance, declaring: “How good was Jonathan Davies!”
This is not an attempt to put O’Driscoll down, because, as I have written previously, he has been one of the great players of the professional era. It is more an acknowledgement that there is an ebb and flow to the careers of all international players, and that – like many great players before him – O’Driscoll’s was on the ebb tide before this tour.
Gatland said after announcing the third Test side, before the Twitter hysteria over O’Driscoll’s omission broke, that he had made sure his head ruled his heart, and that he made the decision purely on the basis of picking a team with the best chance of winning the series. He added that he did not select with a view to currying political favour.
Dead right. That is what the head coach is paid to do, and the bile-ridden criticism on social media outlets that O’Driscoll’s axing was part of Gatland having some nefarious pro-Welsh agenda is idiotic.
As for the form book on tour, O’Driscoll showed well enough against Western Force and the Combined Country XV, but both were limited midweek opponents. A clearer indication of the Test pecking order was that he was not picked for the crucial weekend wins over the Reds or the Waratahs.
After Roberts was injured O’Driscoll acquitted himself reasonably in the first Test, his dummy run helping to set up Alex Cuthbert’s try – although it was the subject of a TMO review for obstruction.
However, there were also glitches, including conceding two breakdown penalties, and a failure to make any significant impact in attack.
In the Melbourne Test, O’Driscoll was equally blunt in attack, and although he tackled solidly in both Tests there were none of the skilful touches that unlock defences, or any sign of the blistering acceleration his early fame was built on.
Nor was there much evidence of the inspirational leadership that his supporters said he brought to the tourists, and in one instance he passed the ball straight to the Aussie dangerman Israel Folau.
Even Keith Wood, one of his greatest advocates, conceded that he was “quiet” in the first two Tests.
Those using a sentimental attachment to BOD’s glory days to lash Gatland need reminding that no individual is bigger than the team.
No player has a God-given right to have his Lions career end on a glorious high note, as the likes of Martin Johnson and Wood know only too well after Justin
Harrison’s lineout steal to clinch the third Test in 2001. As for being distraught over selection, James Hook, who is versatile enough to play inside-centre and fly-half, did not even make the tour party – or the replacements roster.
Is O’Driscoll’s disappointment any greater than his, at missing possibly his last chance to represent the Lions?
It is also worth comparing Cuthbert’s situation with O’Driscoll’s. His brilliant finishing helped to win the first Test, but the Welsh wing lost his place in the starting line-up for the second Test, and then failed entirely to make the 23 for the decider in Sydney.
To his lasting credit O’Driscoll took his demotion on the chin, acting with utmost professionalism at the training session in Noosa after the team announcement, and then mucking in with coaching local schoolkids.
It’s a pity some of his supporters failed to display the same class.