In times of heightened pressure the natural inclination is to return to what you know. That can be the only possible explanation for Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions selection for Saturday’s series decider in Sydney.
Appointing an active coach of one of the four home nations was always a short-sighted move with inevitable allegations of parochialism somewhere along the line, and so it has proved as the Wales boss packed out his starting XV with 10 of his own.
Managerial careers are defined on such decisions. Just ask Ruud Gullit. For Alan Shearer read Brian O’Driscoll, a Lion to his core and far too modest to kick up a stink about being left out of the game the world is watching.
The Irish centre has been hung out to dry following last Saturday’s one-point loss in Melbourne. Inexplicably so, given a career and a tour in which he has contributed incalculably.
In his place comes Jamie Roberts, the giant doctor. As honest a player as the day is long, his straight running lines and defensive discipline have earned him a mega-money deal at French club, Racing Metro. No problem in that, but his inclusion in Sydney represents a mindset that has all the artistry of a flat-pack wardrobe in a magnolia bunker with no windows.
So, one-out rugby it is then. A battle of the bulk, Gatland style. Bash, bash and bash again.
There are similar themes throughout the selection, and if you are Scottish you might as well not have bothered getting on the plane.
The sole concession to Caledonian possibility is Richie Gray’s presence on the bench and, even after a flacid night of scrummaging in Melbourne, Ryan Grant is left sitting in the stand as Euan Murray watches at home on TV.
Sure, there are changes to the front row, and in Alex Corbisiero Gatland has at least made the right call. The English loosehead, bizarrely missing from the original tour party, should avoid the barrage of penalties conceded by greenhorn countryman Mako Vunipola last time round.
In an era of test rugby where penalties are the principal currency it is a sensible selection, although the preference of Richard Hibbard for Tom Youngs at hooker further blunts the breakdown options of a side pinning all of its hopes on winning the collision. In many respects it is a bold move, and Gatland has at least been true to his beliefs. Had he conceded to popular opinion and opened up the game it would not have truly been his team. If it works he is a genius, and stranger things have happened.
Certainly, his recalling of Mike Phillips at scrum-half makes sense. In a framework of back-row running and minimal expansion the Bayonne No 9 fits the bill perfectly – sniping, directing and playing the game in inches rather than miles.
He is no answer to Australian fulcrum Will Genia, but then who in world rugby is? At fly-half Jonny Sexton’s retention can go down as a no-brainer given the alternatives, or lack thereof. A fit and willing Jonny Wilkinson would walk into this side but, with mind and matter both frazzled after a 10-month French domestic season, the World Cup winner remains on the Riviera.
Owen Farrell’s chief contribution comes with the kicking tee, and while his inclusion on the bench is therefore a sensible one the presence of Leigh Halfpenny at full-back renders the Saracen surplus to requirements for the starting XV.
Given the Welsh weighting elsewhere in the side, Gatland’s decision to prefer Sean O’Brien at open-side to Justin Tipuric is a head-scratcher. Especially so, given the expectation that Australia will turn to veteran fetcher George Smith when their team is announced today.
Once again it is a case of bulk over dynamism, and when it comes to the coach’s ‘my way or the highway’ mentality there is little doubt that the road in question is route one.
The Kiwi has pinned his hopes entirely on brute force, and poor old Tom Croft must be sat there wondering what he has done wrong. The Leicester flanker is the perfect fit for a current England mould where flight-of-foot carries equal importance in the back-row version of Top Trumps, but in the Lions’ biggest game he is left looking on from the periphery.
One of many sent into the shadows, he will wear his blazer and be among the many clapping out the players in one of the most contentious team selections in recent memory – contentious perhaps the wrong word, given the virtual unanimity of the condemnation.
Unless you are from Wales, if you lick your finger and stick it up in the air it feels like the rugby wind is blowing increasingly in the direction of a series defeat. Four nations united as one? It hardly seems so.
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Alex Corbisiero (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales). Replacements: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).