Davies not feeling any extra pressure being No. 13
SYDNEY (AP) — The instant the British and Irish Lions lineup was announced for the series-deciding test against Australia, the focus of attention was firmly on jersey No. 13.
Irish veteran Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after playing in the first two tests, with Jonathan Davies moving one spot wider to his preferred position to accommodate the return of Jamie Roberts at inside center.
O’Driscoll, making his fourth Lions tour, was the sentimental favorite to lead the Lions in the third test after Sam Warburton was ruled out with a torn hamstring, but he didn’t even make the 23-man squad.
Head coach Warren Gatland made the decision to reunite his Welsh midfielders when Roberts returned from injury, and included England center Manu Tuilagi on the bench.
Davies faced a news conference almost as soon as the Lions arrived in Sydney from Noosa Heads on Thursday, and knew the prominent line of questioning would be about his inclusion at the expense of the squad’s most experienced player.
“I wouldn’t say extra pressure,” Davies said, responding to a question about the backlash in parts of Britain and Ireland over Gatland’s selections. “Brian, what he’s achieved in the game, is one of the greats.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity to play in such a big game. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone — we’re in last chance saloon now. We’ve got to win it.”
Davies made his test debut in 2009 and has 36 caps for Wales, as well as the two Lions caps in this series. He and Roberts have forged a formidable midfield combination and become the most capped center pairing for Wales, helping the team to back-to-back Six Nations championships.
Roberts had been sidelined with a hamstring strain and missed the Lions’ 23-21 win in the first test and the 16-15 defeat in Melbourne. He was always expected to return if fit, making Davies uncertain about his place in the team.
“To have someone like that come back in shows the strength of the squad,” Davies said. “What he brings is something different. It’s an exciting prospect.”
Tuilagi, the Samoa-born midfielder who recovered from a shoulder injury to win his first test selection for the Lions, was shocked to merely make the reserves.
He thought O’Driscoll, who has played 125 tests for Ireland and eight for the Lions to be the second most-capped rugby player in history, would get a spot on the bench.
“Of course I feel for him, left out of the last test,” Tuilagi said. “I spoke to him just after we announced the team. He said he was obviously pretty gutted that he’s not involved.
“Brian is a legend of a man and a rugby player. But we don’t select the team. That’s the decision the coaches have made. For us, just focus on the players we have on Saturday.”
Gatland included 10 Welshmen in his starting XV, including Mike Phillips returning at scrumhalf. Irish flyhalf Jonny Sexton and winger Tommy Bowe are the only non-Welshmen in the backline.
Wales has lost its last eight tests against Australia, but Davies didn’t think that was relevant in any way to this series.
“This is the British and Irish Lions. This is a different team,” he said. “Obviously the Welsh team hasn’t beat Australia for a long time, but this team beat Australia two weeks ago.”
Australia coach Robbie Deans said his Wallabies respected what the Welsh midfielders bring to the game.
“They’ve got a combination and they are demanding,” he said. “It’s not surprising that Warren has looked to his Welsh players, he knows them well and you only have to look at that final Six Nations fixture when they responded at the defining moment.”
The Lions haven’t won a series since 1997, and Gatland said he had to go with his head over his heart when it came to selections.
All the same, the Australians had been preparing as if O’Driscoll would play.
“It would have been a great sign-off for Brian, wouldn’t it?” Deans said. “He’s a legend of the game (but) I’ve no doubt he understands the nature of the industry ... he’ll also have perspective.
“From our perspective it’s a little bit of experience gone and a little bit of excitement in terms of emotion, but those are decisions which aren’t made lightly.”
Now the Australians have the only survivor from either squad which contested the 2001 series, with George Smith returning from a left knee injury to force his way into the back row. He was 20 when he played his first test against the Lions, when a then 22-year-old O’Driscoll ran riot in the first test in Brisbane.
He said O’Driscoll probably deserved a fairytale send off for his contribution to world rugby, “but selections are made by the coaching team and we all get selected or dropped in some capacity for unforeseen reasons.
“But Brian O’Driscoll is an iconic figure and an iconic person who lifts a squad,” said Smith, who has 110 test caps but none since 2009. “I have no doubt that he’ll be behind the scenes working his magic with the squad.”