Gatland opts for Dragon to lead Lions

As kids they played together in the same high school soccer and rugby teams in their native Cardiff.

Gatland opts for Dragon to lead  Lions

One was amongst the contenders for England’s Footballer of the Year, the other is about to be anointed captain of the Lions.

Gareth Bale and Sam Warburton have come a long way in a short time from the same northern suburb of the Welsh capital — Bale the Arsenal fan who plays for Spurs, Warburton the Spurs fan who concentrated on rugby once he had been turned down by Cardiff City.

Tomorrow, the son of a fireman who moved to Wales from his native London, will become only the third Welshman to be put in charge of a post-war Lions party, following John Dawes in 1971 and Phil Bennett six years later.

At 24, Warburton will be the youngest since the late Karl Mullen of Old Belvedere and Leinster captained the 1950 Lions to New Zealand, when the Wallabies were nothing more than a warm-up for the main event on the far side of the Tasman.

Warburton may have lost the leadership of Wales because of injury after their embarrassing home defeat by Ireland in the opening round.

He may have been replaced on the openside of the scrum by the formidable Justin Tipuric and he may even have turned down the chance to reclaim the captaincy after Ryan Jones had dislocated a shoulder in Scotland.

In adversity, Warburton played his way back, first in his usual position, then the blindside for the Six Nations denouement against England. His performance on a night when the Grand Slam contenders from across the border didn’t so much break down as disintegrate brought one of sport’s oldest maxims to thunderous life: “You can’t keep a good man down.”

Warren Gatland could, of course, have put the ultimate honour in European rugby back in safe Irish hands.

He could have approved Paul O’Connell’s reappointment for a second successive tour, a feat achieved only by England’s second row colossus, Martin Johnson.

As head coach, Gatland could have reunited Brian O’Driscoll with the Lions captaincy. He could have cleared the way for the greatest European player of his generation to reclaim the position which the All Blacks tore from him with the savagery of the notorious spear tackle during the first minute of the first Test in Christchurch eight years ago.

Gatland hasn’t got where he is by making decisions based on sentiment. Neither, of course, has O’Driscoll. He wouldn’t want to go as some sort of pre-retirement trip because of what he has achieved over the years. He wants to go not to make up the numbers but to be a Test player, even if it means competing with the muscular Manu Tuilagi for the outside centre position.

Shortly before embarking on the final weekend of matches, Gatland made a special trip to Dublin for a chat with O’Driscoll. Whatever he had to tell him, he wanted it to be face-to-face rather than at the end of a phone or via the screen of a laptop.

Gatland did so out of deference to a player who has been around for so long that he played the first of his 131 Tests 13 years ago when the New Zealander was coaching Ireland before the IRFU gave him the heave-ho.

The arguments over Gatland’s choice for the summer series in Australia will be long and loud. Those who believe O’Driscoll is the best man for the job include a pair of distinguished English Lions, Jeremy Guscott and Richard Hill, the inestimable back row forward.

Had the Wallabies, or Nathan Grey to be more specific, not smashed him out of the second Test in Melbourne when the best of British and Irish were last down under 12 years ago, O’Driscoll, then on his first trip, would not still be waiting to experience a winning Lions tour.

Martyn Williams, Warburton’s predecessor at the Cardiff Blues and his mentor, is another influential voice in support of O’Driscoll.

“I would have gone with Brian,” the former 100-Test Wales flanker said. “If not Brian, then Paul O’Connell because they have been there and done it.”

Gavin Hastings, skipper of the Lions in New Zealand 20 years ago, stands four-square behind Warburton as the best man for the job. The Scot also thinks Gatland may spring one of his usual selection surprises and pick the uncapped Wasps wing Christian Wade.

PETER JACKSON’S LIONS SQUAD: Full-backs/wings: L Halfpenny (Wales), S Hogg (Scotland), R Kearney (Ireland). T Bowe (Ireland), A Cuthbert (Wales), G North (Wales). Centres: J Davies (Wales), B O’Driscoll (Ireland), J Roberts (Wales), M Tuilagi (England), B Twelvetrees (England). Fly halves: J Sexton (Ireland), J Wilkinson (England). Scrum-halves: M Phillips (Wales), B Youngs (England), C Murray (Ireland). Props: A Jones (Wales), D Cole (England), C Healy (Ireland), A Sheridan (England), M Ross (Ireland), E Murray (Scotland). Hookers: R Best (Ireland), R Hibbard (Wales), D Hartley (England). Locks: A-W Jones (Wales), I Evans (Wales), P O’Connell (Ireland), G Parling (England) Flankers: T Croft (England), S Warburton (Wales), J Tipuric (Wales), S O’Brien (Ireland), D Lydiate (Wales), R Jones (Wales). No 8s: J Heaslip (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).

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