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Warren Gatland risks all as Lions head into final Test against Australia

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: July 05, 2013

By Mark Orders

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British Lions coach Warren Gatland

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ASHLEY Revell walked into the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas and bet his lifesavings and everything he owned on a single spin of the roulette wheel.

All his chips were piled on red.

On that basis, he may just be one of the few people who will truly be able to empathise with Warren Gatland when the New Zealander walks into the ANZ Stadium in Sydney tomorrow.

Revell stood to lose even the shirt on his back when he wagered £76,840 that night in 2004.

As for Gatland, he is gambling with something that is worth even more to a man at the top of his profession — his reputation.

Because an elite coach's standing in his chosen sport is built significantly on his judgement and if the Lions lose tomorrow then the whole universe and his dog will conclude that the call Gatland made to drop Brian O'Driscoll was flawed.

That is just the way it is. There will be no 50 shades of grey. It will be black or white. A win would see Gatland viewed as a high roller blessed with insight; a defeat would see him damned as a reckless gambler who failed to understand the traditions of the Lions. If Gatland wants an omen ahead of a probable sleepless night, Revell left the casino a winner all those years ago, exiting with £153,680.

The Kiwi has actually reverted to type for the biggest game of his career, picking a side who will look to blow the opposition off the park with raw power.

Such an approach has long been at the heart of his philosophy.

It isn't subtle, it isn't pretty and for it to be effective it doesn't need those charged with executing it to all speak with Welsh accents.

Yet some critics were on that beat after the team announcement, no doubt pulling their best Munch's-The-Scream faces before recovering to reach for the nearest keyboard or phone to alert the planet to their absolute disgust at what had happened.

Inevitably, the lazy claim was put about that the selection had been based on nationality.

Ten Welshmen in the side showed that Gatland trusted only his boys, apparently, the side he had been associated with since 2008.

Austin Healey typically got in on the act, taking to Twitter to say: "If anyone is welsh is in Australia (sic) in the NSW region, has their own boots (not vital) and fancies a game give Warren a call on 07967******". Warming to the theme, he followed up with: "News.. Aled Jones leaves Daybreak to replace Corbisiero in Lions Team.. Catherine Jenkins (sic) considered to replace Parling if she wears heels".

From this we can deduce that Healey's house style isn't Oscar Wilde.

Also, he and others appear forgetful in that they didn't exactly protest when nine Englishmen were included in the side that faced Australia in the third Test in 2001.

Willie John McBride has also taken a swipe at Gatland, while another respected commentator, trying to explain why O'Driscoll should have been picked, called the Irishman a "fantastic guy". To which the argument could be there are centres who play for Tenby Thirds who are fantastic guys, but no-one is suggesting they should be facing Australia on Saturday.

Having seen the Lions stopped on the gain-line in the second Test, Gatland has called on a battalion of ball carriers to correct the situation, with Jamie Roberts, Richard Hibbard, Sean O'Brien and Toby Faletau drafted in to test the Wallabies' appetite for tackling.

In Gatland's world, size is king. If he had been a writer, it would have been a case of Snow White and the Seven Bouncers, while Little House on the Prairie would have become Quite A Big House on the Prairie, Actually.

Packing a side with players from one country didn't work in 2001 or in 2005 but it did in 1971, when nine Welshmen featured in the first Test against New Zealand. No doubt Healey would have bemoaned that selection as well.

No-one should expect a work of art tomorrow. It will be a test of strength.

With a northern hemisphere referee who usually rewards a dominant scrum, Alex Corbisiero, Hibbard and Adam Jones will look to put Australia through the mangle and then keep repeating the trick at every opportunity.

Romain Poite is unlikely to allow Ben Alexander to do his best ironing-board impression at each set-piece, as the Wallaby did against Mako Vunipola last week, when several scrums saw him end up flat on his face with the Lions penalised. Corbisiero is a stronger scrummager than Vunipola, so on that basis Alexander should find the going tougher.

Where those arguing for O'Driscoll's inclusion are on strong ground is in saying the Lions will lose something at the breakdown without the 34-year-old Irishman, a master at winning turnovers. And with no-specialist openside in Gatland's line-up, and George Smith in Australia's team, that is a worry.

Should Justin Tipuric have started? There is a strong case for believing he should have, given his expertise at snaffling opposition ball in contact. And to cheer Healey further we should conclude that Geoff Parling can count himself fortunate to have held off the challenges of Richie Gray and Ian Evans as well.

But, generally, there is method to Gatland's selection. O'Driscoll's omission must have been a marginal call, but he hasn't been playing especially well and crucially hasn't been crossing the gain-line. The Roberts-Jon Davies partnership for Wales evidently sealed the deal.

Sentiment was never going to come into it.

Gatland is a man, after all, who overlooked his rugby soul-mate, Shaun Edwards, for this tour, a man who had been at his side for almost all his major triumphs. If he could do that, anything was possible.

Every Lions tour has a selection controversy. In 2009, Ugo Monye was picked ahead of Shane Williams, for heaven's sake. Even Monye himself must have wondered what on earth was going on.

That said, it is a shame that the biggest honour in Alun Wyn Jones's career has been overshadowed by the furore over someone who isn't playing.

But if the Lions win, and Jones inspires the side as he inspires the Ospreys, that will change. The Lions actually look better equipped this week but Australia have momentum and that makes them slight favourites. All that could change if the tourists' get on top at forward.

It is up to those chosen to repay the coach.

If they fail, the wails of protest will be heard across continents.

Spin that wheel.

CAN the Lions do it? Has Gatland made the right choices? Tell us your views below.

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  • abertawejack  |  July 05 2013, 11:13PM

    Discipline, Discipline, Discipline, will be the order of the day,especially with rucking and scrummaging. I believe we have the team to take the game to the Aussie's, just as long as we attack more than we defend. Penalties are all well and good but, we should be looking to cross their gain line at all times. Again I expect players to be committed in looking after our players and look for the ball above set play tactics, the times I've seen player robotically move into a position and leave the ball open, is beyond a joke. Me bottles going like the clappers here already.........

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