As we prepare for the most anticipated game, outside of a World Cup, in years; a series decider of perhaps the closest matched teams in recent history (would a draw in the final game be that big of a surprise?), one cannot help but be struck by the bold yet contrasting selection decisions of both Robbie Deans and Warren Gatland. Indeed, it appears that Deans and Gatland have staked the result of the series on their differing perceptions of the importance of experience. For Deans, this has meant chancing his arm with the inspirational George Smith at the expense of Michael Hooper, a player who has acquitted himself incredibly well to international rugby and was a standout last Saturday. For Gatland, this has meant chancing his arm with the relatively less-experienced Jonathan Davies at the expense of the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll, a player who admittedly has had a lukewarm tour so far but is an unquestionably proven performer. All in all, it seems fitting that such a tightly-contested series between two evenly matched teams has been enhanced by this gripping sub-plot: the contrasting fortunes of two of the greatest players of this generation.
Deans’ selection of George Smith is a wee bit of a head-scratcher given that he was omitted, despite being healthy and raring to go, from last week’s squad. Add in the fact that Hooper was one of the few players to play extremely well last Saturday, in what was a dire match for most, this selection is undeniably bold. Clearly Deans’ is banking on Smith’s experience, his incredible rugby smarts and his metaphysical presence on a rugby pitch. Smith should go down as one of the finest international players ever and arguably Australia’s greatest. Rightfully McCaw is heralded as the finest player of this generation but Smith was never far off, and for what Smith lacked in the fundamental aspects of openside play comparatively to McCaw, he undeniably made up for it in his attacking nous and ability to influence matches in many different ways. Another amazing fact about Smith was his incredible match conditioning which allowed him to play largely injury-free rugby for the majority of career, although age has seemingly caught up with him lately. The key question going into this match is, is Smith going to be good enough to be more than a talisman? Is he going to be a John Smit who keeps a better player out (a la Bismarck du Plessis) or is he going to be a Brad Thorn who is fully worthy of his spot. Judging by his form for the Brumbies in Super Rugby, most would argue that Smith fits the latter profile; he still has the incredible ability to make play after play and while his natural physical gifts have diminished, his smarts have perhaps increased. Whether he has returned to full fitness after what was thought to be a series ending injury, only time will tell. But as McCaw showed in the World Cup final, some of the greats find a way to perform regardless.
Gatland’s omission of O’Driscoll, a man who made his name as a Lion twelve years earlier and subsequently became one of only three men to embark on four Lions’ tours, will undoubtedly pull at the heartstrings of many, particularly his adoring Irish fans. Indeed, while a great player like O’Driscoll deserves to go out on in a more dignified way, in reality, sadly there should be no time for sentiment in the cut-throat world of international sport. Sure O’Driscoll has failed to make any discernible impact so far in the two test matches he played. In fact, the lasting memories have been O’Driscoll giving away a litany of penalties in the opener and an ill-advised kick in the second test. However, the lack of attacking impact from O’Driscoll is more schematic than anything; a product of an anaemic Lions backline that has failed to spark (has Leigh Halfpenny touched the ball in this series apart from kicking at goal?). Additionally, Davies, the man who will replace O’Driscoll in the number thirteen jersey has hardly been a source of attacking inspiration and was at fault for Adam Ashley-Cooper’s game winner in the last test. The irony is that O’Driscoll has been jettisoned for the same Welsh pairing he carved up a little over five months ago in the Six Nations opener in Cardiff. Surely the magic has not escaped him in those short months? Surely based on his track record he is worth the risk? Apparently not. Instead, Gatland has thrown his hat in with his Welsh boys, as ten of them will start this Saturday with another on the bench. Remember Wales is a team that has failed to beat Australia in their last 8 matches! Davies is a fine player and his selection may well payoff, but if the Lions end up losing this weekend then the ‘what if’ questions and second guessing of Gatland will be debated for decades to come.
I for one cannot wait for the finale of this series. It has been a series of the sublime (although arguably full of some woeful periods too), the suspenseful and of some incredibly small margins. Paradoxically, the romantic in me celebrates the return of Smith for the Wallabies while the pragmatist in me understands the omission of O’Driscoll. In that vein, it is impossible to posit whether Deans or Gatland has made the masterstroke. Only time will tell which one of these storied coaches is lauded for his brilliance and which one is scolded for his ineptitude. The fact that so much is on the line: a series win (perhaps the first in 16 years for the Lions); multiple legacies of some great players, coaches and the teams themselves; the future international employment of coaches and players alike; and ultimately the glory of winning a Lions series, makes this one of the most compelling games of rugby in years.