Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip have been dropped from the Lions' squad for Saturday’s final and deciding third Test against Australia.
The gasps from the assembled media corps when the Lions’ coach walked into the team announcement flanked by Alun Wyn Jones rather than O’Driscoll spoke volumes. When it was confirmed that O’Driscoll hasn’t even made the 23 those gasps turned to bewildered looks.
Everything had been set up for O’Driscoll to have a fairy-tale climax to his career with Lions winning his final match, winning the series with him receiving the Tom Richards’ Cup.
Instead he’ll be in the stands in Sydney and will be flanked by his successor as Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip.
Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones will captain the side on Saturday.
In a must win game amid suggestions that the very future of the Lions’ brand depends on this result Gatland has put his faith in players who have failed to beat Australia the last three times they have faced them wearing the red of Wales.
Saturday’s team shows six personnel changes and one positional switch – Jonathan Davies moves from inside to outside centre – with two Irish players and three English joining the strong Welsh representation.
“We told Brian this morning,” said Gatland. “Obviously, he was disappointed, as anyone would be, but he appreciated the fact that he was spoken to before the announcement.
“It’s the first time that any coach has had that decision with him in 15 years of rugby. It’s not easy for that to be the first time, but he’s still going to be very important for us for the next 72 hours in terms of his experience and leadership.
“He’s been involved in the first two Tests, but Jamie’s back fit and Jamie’s been given the nod in terms of that partnership of Jamie and Jon Davies in the midfield.”
Much has been made of O’Driscoll’s form in the opening two Tests. Certainly he wasn’t at his explosive best but that had more to do with the tactics he was playing to rather than a lack of form.
Some will look on this selection as a bold move and there are areas where the team has been strengthened. The Lions front-row, for example, looks a lot stronger and they will make life far more difficult for the Australians.
But it’s impossible not to believe that the Lions’ coach has made a grave and probably fatal error in dropping O’Driscoll and, to a lesser extent, Heaslip.
While the call on O'Driscoll is controversial, the remainder of the changes were less surprising.
Sean O'Brien replaces Warburton at openside and Alex Corbisiero returns after missing the second Test with a calf injury, resulting in Mako Vunipola's demotion to the bench.
O'Driscoll responded to being dropped with a post on his verified Twitter feed encouraging those who will line up in Saturday's game.
He wrote: "Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through. #seaofred."
British and Irish Lions team to face Australia in the third Test at the ANZ Stadium, Sydney, on Saturday, July 6:
L Halfpenny (Wales); T Bowe (Ireland), J Davies (Wales), J Roberts (Wales), G North (Wales); J Sexton (Ireland), M Phillips (Wales); A Corbisiero (England), R Hibbard (Wales), A Jones (Wales), A-W Jones (Wales, capt), G Parling (England), D Lydiate (Wales), S O'Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: T Youngs (England), M Vunipola (England), D Cole (England), R Gray (Scotland), J Tipuric (Wales), C Murray (Ireland), O Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).