Gattygate shrouds real battleground

DONAL LENIHAN: Let’s get this one out of the way early, given that you are going to be subjected to a diatribe of Gattygate over the next five days. I promise not to refer to it again... at least until Monday morning.

Gattygate shrouds real battleground

In my opinion, Warren Gatland’s decision to omit Brian O’Driscoll from the third Lions test last summer is water under the bridge. The Lions won the series so let’s move on.

If you think the issue will be a motivating factor for Ireland, and by extension the crowd on Saturday, rest assured, it will be a point of discussion in the Welsh camp, given they view the Irish public’s reaction to the controversial call as a lack of respect for both Jonathan Davies and for their coach, who is a highly respected figure in the Welsh dressing room.

Despite the fact that Davies returned from injury for the first time since November for the Scarlets game against London Irish in the LV=Cup last Saturday, Gatland has resisted the temptation of promoting him to their matchday squad for Dublin, thus adding more fuel to the fire.

I thought Brian merited selection in that third Lions test based on his performances in the opening two but that is the sole prerogative of the coach who has to have the courage to live or die by those tight calls.

Speaking to Warren in Noosa a few hours after the bombshell was announced, he outlined his reasons for making the call. He felt Brian was out on his feet in the last 20 minutes of the second test and that his legs were gone.

I disagreed with that summation, even more so having watched the last quarter of the game again half an hour after our conversation, but Gatland’s decision was the only one that mattered.

The fallout back home was way over the top, and even Brian has moved on at this stage. Labouring the point this week serves no valuable purpose to the Irish squad but is sure to galvanise the Welsh even further.

With that issue put to bed, let’s focus on the challenges facing Joe Schmidt’s men down the track, with Saturday’s game the first of three massive contests against Wales, England and France that will frame Ireland’s championship. Beat Wales next weekend and a Triple Crown beckons for this group of Irish players when they travel to London in round three.

That is about as far ahead as I am prepared to look at the moment.

England were very impressive in defeat at the Stade de France and should not have surrendered a five-point lead in the final minutes against the French having shown commendable character to in overturn a disastrous start. That Twickenham fixture will be England’s first home game of the championship and with a likely win over Scotland in the bag by then, the old cabbage patch will be buzzing.

Before that however, Ireland will have to up their performance from last weekend, especially in attack, where they need to be more accurate. In that respect, they are not alone. I was in Cardiff on Saturday and was very impressed by the Italians who, like England, recovered from conceding an early try to close the gap to five points with just 10 minutes remaining against a Welsh side that, at times, looked very ordinary.

In Michele Campagnaro, Italy have finally unearthed a young midfield gem and even 20-year-old Angelo Esposito, recovered from his defensive howler, displayed admirable character in getting his game back together. Italy blooded three championship debutants in their backline, all promoted from last season’s U20 side.

Even in the troubled out-half slot, Tommaso Allan, another 20-year-old, offers hope for the future. Italy were far more impressive on the opening weekend than a very disappointing Scottish outfit.

Wales have a history of being notoriously slow starters in this championship — they had lost three of their last four tournament openers — but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the Irish game was in the back of their minds. With a view to that eagerly-anticipated game, the O’Driscoll issue was a hot topic of conversation in the principality also and my overall impression was that Wales were playing in second gear.

When Italy narrowed the gap with Campagnaro’s intercept try, Wales had the facility to lift the tempo immediately, winning the penalty that offered them a two-score buffer.

The one aspect Wales bring to the party is a massive physicality across their midfield with Jamie Roberts and George North looking every bit as menacing as when on Lions duty last summer.

Roberts is an enigma. When you watched him playing for Cardiff over the years, he never offered any semblance of the threat that illuminated the Lions tours of 2009 and 2013 and he delivers on a consistent basis for Wales. I always put that down to the fact that, as a medical student, his focus was more on study when operating in the non-international window.

Given the massive demands placed on international players nowadays, his achievement in qualifying as a doctor just prior to the last Lions tour was incredible. With that notable accomplishment finally locked away, I expected his club form to mirror the consistent excellence the big centre regularly displays at international level.

The fact that he was also turning a new chapter in his career, joining up with fellow Lions Johnny Sexton and Dan Lydiate at Racing Metro, would surely see him shoot the lights out in the Top 14. That hasn’t been the case when he looked a pale shadow of his self in the Heineken Cup pool stages. Granted, he was a lot sharper in Racing’s win over Toulouse on the eve of the Italian game.

Perhaps he was just sending a message to Gatland “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine for Wales”.

There is something about him when he dons a red jersey, any red jersey. He becomes transformed. His new coaches in Racing, the two Laurents, Travers and Labit, must have been scratching their heads in wonderment after watching him last Saturday. Maybe ROG is on a mission and has proposed a player swap to the Racing Metro board with Roberts getting to play in red on a consistent basis for Munster in place of Casey Laulala who is already checking out real estate in Paris? Nice thought but I doubt it.

Either way, expect Joe Schmidt to pay special attention to the grave threat posed by Roberts and North. They will provide the ultimate test of Ireland’s defensive organisation.

In the circumstances, Gordon D’Arcy could well return to partner O’Driscoll in what promises to be a riveting midfield battle, even if Jonathan Davies is only watching proceedings from the stand.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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