Saturday, 6 July 2013

Lions Seek Impact in BOD Test

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In the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney on Thursday night a man was quietly organising a taxi for his family at the concierge, momentarily distracted when fans came up to speak to him. Almost unrecognisable dressed down in grey civvies he had melded into the busy throng around the hotel lobby. Yet a few hundred yards away at the Royal Automobile Club a Welshman, dressed in full Lions team wear, spent twenty minutes of his press conference discussing the absence of the Irishman ordering the taxi. Albeit Jonathan Davies did an admirable job in what were difficult circumstances for him forty eight hours before kick-off. Particularly when he thought he would lose out once Jamie Roberts was fit again to play. 

As Brian O’Driscoll whisked his wife Amy and Daughter Sadie to take refuge in the peace and quiet of a family dinner, the rugby world was in turmoil after Lions coach Warren Gatland's decision to leave out the Irish international centre and the tremor was felt across the media circles. The calmest man being O’Driscoll himself who accepted the selection in the manner you would expect, quietly, calmly and professionally. The decision perhaps only shocking for some as the rugby icon was not even of value on the bench and a point that attracted more criticism probably than the starting choice itself of Davies and Roberts. And that the team could not benefit from O’Driscoll's involvement proved an outcome much harder to fathom in many ways for fans. 

Truthfully though, BOD is not an impact substitute in the way others can be on game day. 

But as Davies fielded all the questions, the daunting task of what lay ahead became more apparent, all confirmed by the number of times O’Driscoll’s name was mentioned. Yet such is professional sport at this level, that one player's misfortune is another's unforeseen fortune with Davies now accumulating another Lions test cap on the 2013 tour and hoping to add to his tally of three tour tries. With the spot on the bench going to Manu Tuilagi, a player all the more surprised to find himself immersed in the final and crucial test. Which for all intents and purposes could become known as the BOD Test given the cruel events of this week for one of rugby’s greatest players.

Across the harbour at The Rocks, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans found it hard to argue against the notion that momentum was now edging his way of his squad, on the eve of the decisive test. His humour and fast ripostes showed a man engaging in gallows humour to some degree, clearly delighted to have been spared another chances after Melbourne levelled matters last week. Even if the choice of George Smith at flanker attracted a fair amount of comment, under normal circumstances it would have been another story the media could have beat him with. On this day however it was more Shangri-La and everybody seemed warmed by the thought of maintaining the 13 year winning record over The Lions. One which Deans would also enjoyed as player with The All Blacks and no doubt rejigging his game plan with the knowledge that O'Driscoll was no longer to be a threat.

The thought process ahead of the crucial third test was not complex for Deans, as long as his team secured with good possession in the right areas of the field the platform from which the Australians plan to demolish the Lions defence. Continuing in many ways the game plan from the Etihad Stadium seven days ago, which rendered that vital result for the Qantas Wallabies. Where Deans got more correct tactically than Gatland, leaving the Lions squeezed on the gain line, without ball in hand, and unable to relieve the almost constant Wallaby pressure. Or dominate the set piece to build an attacking platform. 

A rather flat performance to the impartial observers’ it would have to be said.

Not surprisingly therefore that on the eve of the game at the North Sydney Oval the language from forwards coach Graham Rowntree was all positive. And speaking of one great performance still left in the tank. In fact, billing the game as the greatest ever in his sporting career and one that all the squad were desperate to win. But no so desperate as to overcook it, a problem that might have been a determining factor in the second test given the deep disappointment the players felt when they lost out on a series win by the one point. It was a theme echoed by Richard Hibbard and Tommy Bowe when they faced the media after their final session. 

For Bowe it was time to play rugby, attack with ball in hand and seek that Holy Grail which for sixteen years has eluded packs of Lions. Be it in South Africa the last time. Or indeed New Zealand the previous time. Or indeed in Australia the time before that, all of thirteen years ago.

As the rugby world, and particularly the Irish sporting world digests the departure of Drico, at least at Lions test level, the final battle of the tour will still be down to the tightest of margins. Perhaps even the refereeing of Roman Poite, who it appears, is a welcome choice for the Lions as they gear up for the last test at the ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. A contest which pits two teams against each other once again, in a series that has not seen more than two points ever separate them at then final whistle, with both squads suffering a few major injuries and with two Kiwi coaches at the helm. In addition two squads fighting to write history. 

If the Lions may seem the hungrier bunch in terms of breaking that touring hoodoo, it is clear in downtown Sydney that the locals, who do take an interest the union game, are buoyed by the Etihad Stadium result. It remains to be seen whether Warren Gatland’s selection decisions were the correct ones.

The view of Sir Clive Woodward post second test was that substitutions or selections are far from scientific, and during the last game the Gatland’s decisions to haul off a number of players midway through the second half might have been premature – given the negative result. It would go without saying that the best laid plans in the locker room don’t always transfer the park. But that won’t worry Gatland who seems to thrive in the tough decisions, those big calls, and is rarely fazed by controversy. Thirteen years ago the same coach was urging Irish supporters to fax their best wishes to the Irish team at their Paris hotel, ahead of what became a historic win at Stade France in 2000. In Sydney though there have been few well-wishing faxes one imagines relating to things thirteen. 

Although should the Lions win the series the well-wishers will no doubt forget the O’Driscoll call. Temporarily at least.

For Brian the future will be more about quiet dinners with Amy and Sadie – which will give him time to reflect on a career that has given so much to the game. 

For BOD has truly been a player of impact. 

It’s just he has failed to get Gatland’s trust in the deciding test on Saturday night in Sydney.

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