Jones to lead Lions in deciding test vs Australia
NOOSA HEADS, Australia (AP) — With so much at stake, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland knew he couldn’t be swayed by sentiment when he picked his lineup for the third and deciding test against Australia. It had to be head over heart, he said, and no player was more affected by that mindset than Brian O’Driscoll.
Widely tipped to captain the team in the absence of injured flanker Sam Warburton, O’Driscoll lost his place in the centers and didn’t get a spot on the bench in the squad announced Wednesday for Saturday’s sold-out test in Sydney which will determine whether the Lions can leave Australia with their first series victory anywhere since 1997 in South Africa.
The absence of 34-year-old O’Driscoll is one of six changes to the starting lineup following a 16-15 loss in the second test. The new starting XV includes 10 members of the Wales side that Gatland guided to the Six Nations titles, three Irishmen and two from England.
“It all comes down to Saturday, winner takes all,” Gatland said from this holiday resort town where the Lions have been based in predominantly rest-and-relaxation mode over the past four days.
“We know we can leave nothing in the tank and that only a complete performance will get us across the line. Picking this team was not easy and ultimately with several players available after recovering from injury the head overruled the heart in many selection decisions.”
O’Driscoll was discarded at center and replaced by Jamie Roberts, who credited the Lions’ medical staff with helping him overcome what he thought was a tour-ending hamstring injury sustained in a match against the New South Wales Waratahs on June 15.
Roberts said O’Driscoll approached him after the players were told of the third-test lineup early Wednesday, immediately offering his help out with preparations for Sydney.
“Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through,” O’Driscoll said on his Twitter account Wednesday.
Wales lock Alun-Wyn Jones will stand in as captain for Warburton, who was ruled out after tearing his left hamstring in the Melbourne test last Saturday. Sean O’Brien was elevated to the starting lineup to replace Warburton on the openside flank.
“Hopefully I’ve been selected for the way I play and not the way I lead,” Jones said. “To be selected for the final test is a pretty special moment for me, but there’s still a job to do.”
The choice of Jones was ironic — Australia captain James Horwill was cleared on Tuesday after two International Rugby Board hearings of stamping on Jones in the first test in Brisbane. A Horwill suspension could have resulted in the regular captains of both teams being sidelined once Warburton was out due to his injury.
Toby Faletau will make his first start of the series for the Lions at No. 8 and Mike Phillips returns at scrumhalf after missing the second test with a sore knee.
O’Driscoll, who is making his fourth Lions tour, started at outside center in the first two tests and had been widely expected to take over as captain in Warburton’s absence.
“Brian O’Driscoll is a great player and has had a wonderful career but for the final test in Sydney we just felt Jamie Roberts’ presence offered us something more,” Gatland said. “We think we picked the best team to win on Saturday.”
The selections add some bulk to the Lions backline with Roberts, who missed the first two tests, joining Welsh teammate Jonathan Davies in the midfield and England center Manu Tuilagi on the bench.
“Brian was disappointed, but he appreciated that he was spoken to before the team announcement,” Gatland said. “It’s the first time that a coach has ever made the decision with him in 15 years of rugby.
“Jamie is back fit and has been given the nod in terms of his partnership with Davies.”
O’Driscoll has played 125 tests for Ireland and eight for the Lions and is one of the most respected players in rugby, but has never won a series with the combined British and Irish team.
He made his debut for the Lions as a 22-year-old center in 2001, when he was instrumental in the Lions opening the series with an emphatic victory in Brisbane before the Australians rebounded to win the next two tests and clinch the series.
In other changes to the starting XV, England prop Alex Corbisiero recovered after missing the second test with a calf muscle injury, resulting in Mako Vunipola’s demotion to the bench, while Welsh hooker Richard Hibbard replaced Tom Youngs.
Three weeks ago, Corbisiero was playing for England in a test series in Argentina before being called into the Lions squad due to a series of injuries early in their 10-match tour.
“That’s sport, isn’t it?” Corbisiero said Wednesday with a big smile on his face. “Who would have thought I’d be here, and I’m as surprised as anyone. But with injuries and the like, you just never know.”
British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Jonathan Davies (Wales), George North (Wales), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Toby Faletau (Wales) Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales) Geoff Parnell (England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales, captain), Adam Jones (Wales), Richard Hibbard (Wales) Alex Corbisiero (England). Reserves: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).