Andy McGeady | British & Irish Lions Tour
Britain and Ireland woke up on Wednesday morning to the shock news that Lions and Ireland veteran Brian O’Driscoll had been dropped from the team to face Australia for the third test in Sydney. Jamie Roberts returns at inside-centre as expected with Jonathan Davies, the man who had been filling that role at 12, named to replace the great Irishman at 13.
It’s a make-or-break decision for Warren Gatland. But it must be said that no matter how one might rate the individual talents of O’Driscoll or Davies – it takes a solid amount of either guts or stupidity to drop a legend for a series decider.
Naming Sean O’Brien at open side in place of the injured tour captain Sam Warburton will provide some solace to Irish rugby fans but it will be the Welshman Toby Faletau packing down beside him in the back row and not his Leinster and Ireland compatriot Jamie Heaslip.
There has been little to choose between Heaslip and Faletau on tour, with Faletau doing an impressive amount of carrying – he leads the Lions in tour carries with 73. Despite Heaslip’s overall metres-per-carry stats being more impressive than Faletau, disparagers could point to a first test where he carried 13 times for just 13 metres and a second where he carried just four times for 12 metres.
It’s worth looking at the list of carries made by Lions forwards in that Melbourne test:
Staggeringly, Heaslip’s 12 metres was the most of any Lions forward on the day and was only behind Leigh Halfpenny’s 13 and Jonathan Sexton’s 40 metres carried for the Lions. These figures are a reflection of Warren Gatland’s second test tactics where, for 80 minutes, any Lions ball when secured was sent skywards into Australian territory with almost indecent haste.
A back row with both Faletau and O’Brien named is built less for scavenging and more for running, or at least that’s what one might think. And that’s what makes the O’Driscoll dropping so odd.
Jonathan Davies has had a fine tour. The highlight being a remarkable performance against the Waratahs where he carried for 141 metres.
However, even including that his overall metres per carry is just 4.9 compared to O’Driscoll’s 4.6, with the latter over twice as likely to complete an offload.
O’Driscoll had the highest offload per carry figure in the Lions squad from the 2012/13 season and he has backed that up on tour, making a successful offload almost every fourth carry. Davies? Every 10th carry.
The Welsh centre has put boot to ball twice as often as O’Driscoll on tour. Considering their style of play in Melbourne – this could well have endeared himself to both Warren Gatland and Saracens man Andy Farrell.
World-class turnover artists
Sean O’Brien is underrated at the breakdown but without the presence of both Warburton and O’Driscoll the Lions are down two world-class turnover artists, at least when the referees allow a contest in this area.
O’Driscoll had three harsh breakdown penalties given against him in the first two tests by Southern Hemisphere whistlers but the third test will be officiated by Frenchman Romain Poite which could make a big difference.
The Lions are now minus their pre-test major leadership figures in Warburton, O’Connell and O’Driscoll. In contrast, the Wallabies have their captain James Horwill available and have added their great open-side George Smith. If nothing else, from first test to third that’s a swing in terms of both experience and leadership of staggering proportion.
For the first time on tour the Lions are underdogs at 11/10 (+1) in the handicap with Australia at 10/11 (-1). That’s a four-point move from the first and second tests where the Lions were three-point favourites for each.
One point for each of Warburton, O’Connell, O’Driscoll and Smith perhaps?
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