British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has sprung one of the great surprises in the tourists’ history by dropping Brian O’Driscoll for Saturday’s series decider against Australia.
O’Driscoll was the favourite to lead the Lions in the final Test at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium after Sam Warburton was ruled out with a hamstring injury, but instead he has been omitted from the 23 with Alun-Wyn Jones named captain.
The O’Driscoll-Jonathan Davies midfield partnership used for the first two Tests has been broken up, with Jamie Roberts picked at inside centre following his return from a hamstring injury.
Davies moves to outside centre while Sean O’Brien, Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Toby Faletau and Mike Phillips are promoted to a starting XV showing six changes to the side beaten 16-15 in Melbourne.
It is a radically altered team but the dominant talking point will be the decision to axe 2005 Lions captain O’Driscoll for the first time in his 14-year professional career.
The conundrum facing Gatland was weighing up the 34-year-old’s patchy form against his big-game temperament in what was expected to be his final bow for the tourists.
“Brian is a great player and has had a wonderful career, but for the final Test we felt that Jamie Roberts’ presence offered us something more,” Gatland said.
“Brian was disappointed but appreciated that he was spoken to before the announcement.
“It’s the first time any coach has ever made that decision with him in all his years of rugby.
“It’s not going to be easy for him, but he’ll still be important for us in the next 72 hours in terms of his experience and leadership.”
A record-equalling 10 Welshman have been named in the starting XV, among them Jones who was the natural choice as captain when O’Driscoll was removed from the picture.
The Lions are missing all three of their Test captains – Warburton, O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell – but Gatland said: “It wasn’t about leadership, it was about picking the best team.
“We went through it and did that, then the next question was who could do the best job in terms of captaining.
“Alun will lead from the front and has been outstanding in the lead-up games. He’s been one of the first names on the sheet for the first two Tests.
“A little bit of pressure will be taken off him because Geoff Parling will call the lineouts. He’s been an important part of that engine room.”
Jones has only limited experience of leading Wales and the 27-year-old lock insists his most pressing concern is delivering on the pitch.
“Hopefully I’ve been selected for the way I play and not the way I lead. To be selected for the final Test is a pretty special moment for me, but there’s still a job to do,” Jones said.
“I’ve done quite a bit of captaincy with the Ospreys this season and have done it once with Wales during the Six Nations.”
While the call on O’Driscoll is controversial, the remainder of the changes were less surprising.
O’Brien replaces Warburton at openside and Corbisiero returns after missing the second Test with a calf injury, resulting in Mako Vunipola’s demotion to the bench.
Hibbard is picked at hooker with Tom Youngs named among the replacements, Toby Faletau is preferred ahead of Jamie Heaslip at number eight and Phillips ousts Ben Youngs at scrum-half.
Scotland lock Richie Gray, Wales flanker Justin Tipuric and England centre Manu Tuilagi are the new faces on the bench.
“There are always close calls. Players were coming back from injury and there were some toss-up decisions,” Gatland said.
“It was quite a lively selection meeting that we had. It was tough, but we’ve come up with a side that we think is good enough to do the job on Saturday.”
O'Driscoll responded to being dropped with a post on his verified Twitter feed encouraging those who will line up in Saturday's game.
He wrote: “Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through. #seaofred.”
Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through. #seaofred— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) July 3, 2013
British and Irish Lions team to face Australia in the third Test at the ANZ Stadium, Sydney, on Saturday, July 6:
L Halfpenny (Wales); T Bowe (Ireland), J Davies (Wales), J Roberts (Wales), G North (Wales); J Sexton (Ireland), M Phillips (Wales); A Corbisiero (England), R Hibbard (Wales), A Jones (Wales), A-W Jones (Wales, capt), G Parling (England), D Lydiate (Wales), S O’Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: T Youngs (England), M Vunipola (England), D Cole (England), R Gray (Scotland), J Tipuric (Wales), C Murray (Ireland), O Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).