Warren Gatland will once again take charge of the British & Irish Lions in their tour of South Africa next year, an honour he has had bestowed on him twice in the past.
Despite his impressive record as Lions head coach, a series win in Australia in 2013 and a draw against New Zealand three years ago, the former Wales boss has faced multiple criticisms during his time in the other red jersey.
From appointing a young Sam Warburton as captain in 2013 to calling up the controversial ‘Geography Six’ in 2017, Gatland has had to justify his decisions time and again.
However, perhaps the decision that proved to be the most controversial of all was dropping Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll ahead of their pivotal third Test against Australia seven years ago. For that, he received wave after wave of abuse and criticism.
In his 2019 autobiography, Pride and Passion, Gatland explained his reasoning behind O’Driscoll’s exclusion while he described the fallout as “vicious” and “disturbing”.
“It had been a demanding job for all sorts of reasons. There were difficult decisions to be made before departure, there were complications early in the schedule and there was the bitter disappointment of losing the second Test in Melbourne by a point – a defeat that persuaded most pundits that our goose was well and truly cooked.
“But all that was nothing when set against the outpouring of vitriol that followed my decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll, the great Irish centre, from the winner-take-all finale in Sydney.
“I had never experienced anything remotely like it and have no wish to do so a second time. No one actually died as a result of that team selection but there were plenty of people in the parallel universe of social media who would have been happy to see me on Death Row.
“All this anger and bile over a game of rugby? I can’t pretend that I didn’t find it disturbing.”
Selecting The Team
Gatland admits that it was a mistake to put the Leinster man in front of the media after the second Test. His selection was already under review and with Sam Warburton ruled out for the series finale, having O’Driscoll take on media duties seemed like a sign to the outside world that he was the natural successor.
However, behind closed doors, the thinking was very different.
“We didn’t finalise selection until the Tuesday night, by which we had done two things: established that Jamie Roberts would be ready to play after recovering from his hamstring problem and reviewed the footage from the loss in Melbourne. That review revealed just how hard the Wallabies had gone at Brian, who to a certain extent, had been nursed throughout the tour because of his fragile fitness.”
O’Driscoll had completed an impressive number of tackles in the second Test but was slow to get to his feet after taking down a player late in the game, and admitted his legs were gone when showed the video footage afterward. The questions over his fitness and his ability to hurt the Australians physically ultimately sealed his fate.
Gatland was not alone in deciding to drop O’Driscoll, the entire coaching staff agreed with his verdict.
“When it came to the midfield pairing, the conversation was brief… and unanimous.
“Jamie should come in at 12, with Jonathan Davies at 13. And as I felt that Brian was a starting midfielder or nothing, I went for Manu Tuilagi on the bench. There were no arguments from any of my coaching colleagues. Brian was out, not just out of the starting 15, but out of the 23”.
“The task now was to tell Brian, which I did in the company of Rob Howley. I wasn’t relishing the task. Leaving any player out of a match of such magnitude is awkward, and I was very aware that the phrase ‘any player’ was not relevant in Brian’s case. He was in Jonny Wilkinson territory in terms of his stature on the international stage. In Ireland, he was a genuine legend.
“Contrary to popular opinion, especially as expressed in the Emerald Isle, I cared. I was the coach who had first capped him, we went back a very long way and I was the greatest respect for him. Now I was the first coach to trip him. Any idea that I didn’t understand the significance of that decision was nonsensical.
“As it turned out, our conversation was pretty short. He was profoundly disappointed, of course, but his reaction was everything I hoped it would be. Brian O’Driscoll was always a class act and when Rhys Long, our analyst, told me of that comment in the lift – ‘I’ve talked the talk now I have to walk the walk’ – my level of respect, already stratospheric, rose another notch.”
The Social Media Reaction
As expected, when word reached the northern hemisphere, Ireland especially, that O’Driscoll had been left out of the matchday squad, there was a furious reaction in the media and online.
Gatland soon became the name on everyone’s lips when many accusing the New Zealander of using O’Driscoll to take his revenge on the IRFU.
While the Lions head coach might have been expecting the volume of opinions, their viciousness startled him.
“There was an extraordinary level of hostility to the decision, way beyond anything I’d ever encountered. It was wild, vicious and, in my view at least, miles over the top. Criticism is one thing. This was something above and beyond, something else entirely.
“There was no escaping the anger, the insults, the torrents of accusations about being anti-Irish – that this was a naked act of revenge aimed at those who had sacked me in Dublin all those years ago. I couldn’t believe what I was reading and hearing. Genuinely, it came as a huge shock to me”.
Gatland’s decision was justified when the Lions took to the field for that fateful deciding Test. Roberts added a hugely physical element to their midfield and capped off an impressive performance with a try in their eventual 16-41 victory. Whether O’Driscoll’s presence on the field would have made any difference to the scoreline can be left entirely to your imagination.