After the opening weekend of the 2014 Six Nations served up some unexpected results and surprising performances, the all Celtic clash between Ireland and Wales has a bit of extra spice. As if that was needed.
With current holders Wales squeezing passed an ever improving Italian side, England losing in the final minutes to a resurgent French, and Ireland dominating an under-cooked Scottish team it seems that the Irish-Welsh game at the Aviva this week will take on a real importance as a potential title decider.
However the meeting of the two sides was already in many fans calendars as its marks the first time that Warren Gatland will coach a side in Ireland after THAT decision. You would have to live under a rock not to have heard of Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from the Gatland coached British and Irish Lions side for the series deciding game in Sydney against the Wallabies.
— Planet Rugby (@Planet_Rugby) January 23, 2014
Reaction to the news was swift across all forms of media and in the main it was negative,and at times personal. Has time healed the wounds? These old rugby heads have remained professional throughout. As Gatland and O’Driscoll face questions about a ‘grudge match’ in the build up, it appears they have made peace and want to move on. Will the fans feel the same?
This game isn’t about proving a point, its about scoring them. O’Driscoll and Gatland have nothing to prove as a player or a coach, and there are 45 other players and a Coach named Joe who also have a job to do at the Aviva. Its the rugby that should do the talking, and hopefully after 80 minutes that’s the only topic up for discussion.
Here is an article I wrote in the aftermath of that tour for RugbyMag which tried to take the personalities out of the scenario and talks about the tough decisions coaches have to make.
One of the summer’s big rugby events was the British & Irish Lions Tour Down Under. Though the series victory for the Lions, their first since 1997, will remain in the memory, what threatens to overshadow it is the reaction to the omission of Brian O’Driscoll from the final game.
With Leinster about to start the domestic season in the Rabo Direct, O’Driscoll has spoken for the first time in depth about his dropping from the match and his feelings about it.
Even after some time has passed, his disappointment at the decision is evident. It’s the reaction any player would have to being dropped for a game, especially such a pivotal moment in what has been an incredible career. It is hard not to feel for a player who has given the sport everything and then omitted from the final test match of his final Lions tour. However, sentiment has no place in test internationals.
What it highlights for me is the difference between a player and coach when difficult decisions are made.
The Player’s Perspective
— TheScore.ie Rugby (@rugby_ie) February 2, 2014
Unlike Brian, I did experience non selection during my professional career more than once and it’s tough to take but you have to come back stronger. Every member of the squad has their part to play be it on the pitch or in the build-up so you have to suck it up and help make those who will take the field be in the best position to win. Rugby is a team game and despite how you feel as a player, it is vital that you support your teammates on and off the pitch.
It does not mean as an individual you are not disappointed but you have to look at yourself and find ways of turning that energy into improvements in your game. Rugby is a blend of physical, technical and mental strength and if you focus on negative events you will be weaker.
The Coach’s Perspective
— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 4, 2014
The Media, both professional and social, were shocked and outraged at Warren Gatland’s decision which history has shown was a good one. Of course the team could have won with BOD on the pitch but we’ll never know. Gatland chose the team he thought had the best chance of winning on that day, and that’s what a coach has to do.
Selection is a filtering process and you use different criteria when choosing a squad as opposed to a team. A squad gives you options and a team gives you results.
When at USA U20 camps or during preseason at Dartmouth I’m trying to find a squad of players so my focus is more on the individual and what they can bring to the pool. Some of the factors I look at include; experience, skill, aptitude and attitude.
In competition mode I am looking to build a team so I’m looking less at individuals and more at the group dynamic so form, combinations of players, playing conditions and opposition all become factors.
There is no place for personal factors in the process. A selection based on sentiment or nationality were reasons attributed to Welsh Coach Gatland over the dropping of Lions veteran Irishman O’Driscoll, but these are factors that make no difference on the rugby field.
There are always outside pressures to chose or drop players but a coach ultimately has the last say and where depth of squad and injuries give them the luxury of choice it is their job to select a winning team.
Factors in Common
Unreal pic of BOD and gatland "What did I tell you sonny :-)" pic.twitter.com/J1HsFsCWan”
— Dead Dano LoveHate (@DanoOfficial) July 7, 2013
Brian has not said if he sees himself coaching after he retires at the end of this season but if he does I can confirm time and experience on the other side of the fence has shown me it can be as tough to make and deliver the decisions as it is to hear them. Telling a player that he has not made the team, despite all his hard work is a difficult thing to do.
One factor is true for both perspectives. Ultimately, as a player and as a coach, as Brian O’Driscoll said, “you have to back yourself.”
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com