Ghost of Brian O’Driscoll is hanging over new Lions coach Warren Gatland
Brian O’Driscoll’s name never surfaced during Warren Gatland’s lengthy sit-down with the representatives from the daily newspapers yesterday, but the presence of the Ireland great loomed large.
Bullish in his earlier press conference as he was unveiled as the coach of the 2017 Lions, the New Zealander cut a more reflective figure away from the cameras.
Sitting against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle in an otherwise nondescript meeting room at the headquarters of the tourists’ sponsors in the Scottish capital, he reflected on the tumultuous events of the final week of the 2013 tour when his decision to drop the legendary centre caused consternation.
One by one, Irish former Lions came out strongly against the man who had handed O’Driscoll his international debut as fans took to social media to express their outrage at the decision.
Gatland’s side went out and hammered Australia that Saturday, but the first series win since 1997 was, rightly or wrongly, tainted for many Irish fans despite the involvement of Conor Murray, Tommy Bowe, Sean O’Brien and Jonathan Sexton.
The win should be among the 52-year-old’s career highlights, but the “vitriol” he endured looms large in his reflections.
Three years on, he returns to the role for the most daunting trip of his life and he believes the experience he endured in that final week will steel him for the gauntlet of leading the Lions to New Zealand.
“There was a moment (during the third Test in Sydney) when I looked at the TV when I was in the coaching box with 15 minutes to go and I felt like gesturing towards it!” he recalled. “I kept my counsel. It was a tough week that last one.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on the (Lions) players. It is tough, but if you fail as a Lion it doesn’t have an impact on your international section or club.
“You fail as a coach and have a poor tour — look at previous coaches, the impact it has had on them post-Lions tour has not been positive.”
So, what was the biggest thing he took from the experience?
“The biggest lesson is that you have to be true to yourself,” he said. “The balance of the squad is hugely important and trying to get things right off the field.”
With England currently the dominant force in the northern hemisphere, Gatland will be under pressure to pick from Eddie Jones’ squad ahead of the players he has worked it with Wales.
“The team will be selected on merit,” he said. “It’s not my role to have any favourites.
“If that’s 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen, that’ll be the squad. If you were going to pick the squad now then yes, there would be a large contingent of English players. But if they have an average autumn and a poor Six Nations then that’ll soon turn around.”
As for the daunting task at hand, Gatland was striking an upbeat tone. If the challenge wasn’t big enough, this week it emerged that New Zealand would release their Test players to the Super Rugby franchises for the build-up games.
“It makes our job easier,” was Gatland’s response. “We’re going to be battle-hardened and ready before the first Test if we play the best players available.”
This morning, Gatland travels to New Zealand to check out the facilities and watch the All Blacks in action against Argentina and South Africa.
His next task will be assembling a backroom team. Andy Farrell and Greg Feek seem the most likely names to be put forward from the Irish set-up.
After that, it’s all about picking a squad and a captain and after the reaction to his last selection call as Lions coach that will seem like a cakewalk.