Jigsaw pieces are falling off the board, not into place

I kind of lost my appetite for the Lions on Wednesday morning, which is strange. There’s sentiment and romance.

And there’s right and wrong. I put myself, as an aspiring coach, around Warren Gatland’s table, picking that team. Putting myself in Gatland’s shoes, repeating his words. This is a decision of the head, not the heart. I try but I fail each time to join the dots on the exclusion of Brian O’Driscoll for tomorrow’s deciding test against Australia.

There was a discussion to be had, for sure. Jamie Roberts is back in the mix. There’s an odd man out. But to actually drop O’Driscoll is unfathomable, when all the case-clinching facts tell you to keep Brian and leave out Jonathan Davies.

People aren’t fools. They know when things are wrong. Sky has pushed this series so hard, dramatised it and built it up into something it’s not. Australia aren’t as strong as South Africa or New Zealand but Sky Sports has tried to make this the greatest series that ever was. And it isn’t. The tourists, with that backline selection against the Brumbies, damaged the Lions and what it should stand for. In the future, you may see a pre-tour game in Britain, a single warm-up in the country toured, and then the three tests. The midweek games, especially with the dearth of quality opposition provided by the Australians this time, don’t carry the kind of prestige of past Lions tours.

And then came Wednesday’s woe.

I don’t know how people are reading that Brian didn’t have the greatest second test in Melbourne. He was excellent defensively, and the Lions haven’t employed their backline to any degree in the tests, so I don’t know what was expected of him without the ball.

Things rattled in my head. Ireland v Wales this year, the showdown for the Lions No 13 jersey. Davies had a very poor game by his, and a lot of people’s, standards, so much so I didn’t think he’d even go on the tour. And now he is ahead of O’Driscoll? And Brian was excellent that day — that isn’t so long ago, remember.

I rang Brian on Wednesday. He was choked. We’d be close. We’ve spent the same time on the Irish squad and we’d have compared notes on everything from contracts to opposition. I just didn’t feel great all day. You get that feeling after soldiering with a fella for 125 caps.

It’s the greatest kick in the bollix he could ever get. Horrific. He has to live with that now. There will be a captain’s meeting today and he was probably preparing a speech for that from Monday. And then he gets the tap on the shoulder from Warren. For around 10 seconds every possible thought is going through Drico’s head. Is he going telling me I’m captain? At least in my case, I knew Deccie wasn’t ringing me in the Opera House to tell me I’d been made Irish captain! But for him it was a live possibility. He is thinking, ‘there is a God, what will be will be, I’m getting the chance at 1-1, in Sydney Football Stadium, where it all began in 2001 with the Lions, it’s written in the stars’.

And then... it’s whipped from under him.

There’s a ghoulish fascination with these things that we all succumb to, but you would have learned a lot if you were in the room for the five minutes or so after the team selection meeting had broken up on Tuesday. The atmosphere as fellas offered congratulations to some and hard luck to others. That would have been some experience for the players.

I’ve gone through something on a level that is comparable to this because playing for your country is as important, if not more so, than the Lions. The Lions is very prestigious but there’s more pride involved when it’s your own country and your own people. So I absolutely get what has happened to Brian, but he won’t fully comprehend it until he emerges from the Lions bubble — whether that’s on holiday this summer or perhaps even in 12 months’ time, when he finishes with rugby altogether.

I was okay after the Irish thing because I had Munster coming up. Brian is effectively on holidays now until September. When I kicked brutally in New Zealand in 2002, I just couldn’t enjoy the summer holidays, waiting to put it right back out on the pitch. He’s going to feel that.

It’s very, very hard to shine in every game, but Brian has been consistent and professional in everything he does. It wasn’t always thus. Pre-2007, O’Driscoll was a stellar presence because he relied on raw God-given talent. After that he had a massive look at himself. He gave up chocolate — more of a concession than people can imagine — as part of a massive review of his diet, his lifestyle, and his goals. Ever since he’s been a different animal.

What probably hasn’t helped him in this is the Irish captaincy being taken from him this year. That now looks a bigger blow than he might have realised because it created uncertainty in other people’s minds as a result of that decision. Not in his own mind, but...

I was at training with Racing when the dull thud came. It’s interesting the different nationalities here talking about it. They wouldn’t know O’Driscoll from Adam but the respect the man commands was eye-opening. Un grand faute (the big mistake) was the general verdict.

There’s a school of thought, one that merits consideration, that Warren should be admired for his bravery — if that is the word you want to use. He believes it, he’s done it, and it’s courageous. But I don’t think the general public understand presence in sport; it’s huge. The Lions’ spiritual leader up front is gone, their captain is gone and now one of the most respected players in the history of the game is gone. The Wallabies know how to beat Wales; they do it year in, year out. It’s one team they’ve not struggled with and there are 10 Welsh men playing tomorrow. You have an Irish 10 calling the shots, and no matter who it is, he doesn’t know how the Welsh really play. He’d have a sense from video analysis, but that cannot compensate for playing with it, day in, day out. Jigsaw pieces are falling off the board, not into place.

Two weeks ago we mentioned the players who had to drive the Lions to a test series victory. Three of the five are now gone. It might be too many.

However time moves quickly and players will get on with it. It was raw for a session or two but come kick-off tomorrow night, it’ll be distant noise — even if everything in the 13 jersey will be scrutinised microscopically.

Jamie Heaslip is hard done by, but that’s been largely washed over by Brian because he doesn’t have the same profile. He might, though, in four years. With objective analysis, you would say the Lions are in bonus territory because the series should already be over. So much of the Lions game is through nine at the minute. A game of rugby is better managed by a 10, but there doesn’t seem to be that emphasis in terms of getting the ball into Jonny Sexton’s hands. I wonder has Jonny Wilkinson any regrets now? Doubt it.

Gatland’s going for the power game. The collisions will be fierce and fascinating — the Lions are not going around but through Australia. That will hinge on quickness of ball, Australian line speed and tackle technique. Gatland has jettisoned a distributing midfield in favour of big strong backs — with Tuilagi as reinforcement.

I’m learning myself about the power game in Paris. What strikes me already is the quality of international forwards at Racing Metro. They’ve seven international props, seriously big boys. I wouldn’t mind playing 10 behind them...

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