Gatland ruthless in pursuit of crowning moment

Mike Phillips has been left out in the cold.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

IF EVER YOU needed a reminder of how much winning a Lions series means to players and coaches on either side, Warren Gatland delivered it this morning.

Behind all the white noise of proud, bellowing ex-players on Sky, this event really does mean something in world rugby.

The Wales coach knew he had to make two changes, but where most would hope to minimise that disruption Gatland chose to heap three more tweaks on board.

Talk of Welsh bias has been a feature in the early houses of this tour and he has indeed placed trust in his double Six Nations champions. Let this disappearance of Mike Phillips from the match-day squad and the omission of try-scoring Alex Cuthbert be the end of that.

Long-term, Gatland wants to replace Steve Hansen in the top job across the Tasman. And he knows that neither impressive exploits with Wasps nor his progression of Wales will raise too much fuss in New Zealand.

Winning a Lions series, though, in Australia? That will really make the NZRU blazers sit up and take notice.

As soon as Bowe was asked not to leave Australia with his broken hand, Gatland had him ear-marked for Test action further down the tracks. Phillips, on the other hand, has been a mainstay of every Lions blue-print from the past year.

After a poor Test outing in the shadow of Will Genia, Phillips rightfully came under severe scrutiny, but his long stint as lieutenant for the coach left most to assume he would be trusted to bounce back.

Instead, the coach says: “The decision was to rest him for this week and he’s potentially a key component for next week.”‘

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Farcical stuff. Had Phillips been on form, had he dictated the Lions into a second half comeback rather than left them hanging on, his knee would have been strapped up good and tight for the second Test.  ”Resting’ a player when winning a first series in 16 years is with reach is disrespectful to Phillips and Gatland must know it.

In Phillips’ place the coach has gone against type. The ready-made replacement Conor Murray does not frog-leap his way into this system. Instead, Gatland has picked on form rather than formula and gone for Ben Youngs. It was a similar brand of thinking that led the Leicester man’s brother Tom to a starting berth at hooker last week. And it paid dividends.

What we have, we hold

The exception in all this, perhaps one that proves the rule, is Dan Lydiate’s promotion to the blindside ahead of Sean O’Brien. Though Lydiate is in form approaching his very best his selection is of the what we have, we hold variety. Lydiate will chop down anything put in front of him, but O’Brien has been a star of this tour and his ball-carrying would have given an inexperienced Wallaby back-row much to think about… while they were being carried back across the gain-line.

O’Brien’s emergence as an openside has done him few favours here and the specialists have been picked ahead of him. However, there are two Tests to go and the Tullow Tank’s impact on this Lions Tour may well turn out to be Ireland’s biggest.

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Sean Farrell

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