There will be no fairy-tale ending to a glittering Lions career for Brian O’Driscoll after the Irish legend was ruthlessly axed from the deciding third Test against the Wallabies in Sydney on Saturday.
The 34-year-old Leinster center was hoping to crown his fourth Lions tour with a first series win in 16 years, but instead of picking up his 134th Test cap, he will have to be content with cheering from the sidelines.
O’Driscoll, the sole survivor of the tour against the Wallabies in 2001, took his Lions Test tally to eight in the opening two games this year. The 2005 captain has yet to win a series with the Lions and this is the first time he has been dropped.
Alun Wyn Jones will be captain for the first time and one of a record-equaling 10 Welsh players in the starting lineup, with an 11th on the bench. The last time Wales had 10 men in a Lions lineup was in the first Test against Australia in Brisbane in 1950, which the Lions won 19-6.
Head coach Warren Gatland made five changes to a winning side between the first and second Tests and has now made a further six changes after losing 16-15 in Melbourne last weekend.
Out of the second Test starting XV go O’Driscoll, scrum-half Ben Youngs, his brother and hooker Tom Youngs, prop Mako Vunipola, No. 8 Jamie Heaslip and injured skipper Sam Warburton.
In come the fit-again trio of center Jamie Roberts, scrum-half Mike Phillips and prop Alex Corbisiero. Wales No. 8 Toby Faletau will win his first Lions cap in a back row that sees Sean O’Brien move off the bench to claim Warburton’s No. 7 shirt.
England front-rowers Vunipola and Tom Youngs are joined at the bench by newcomers Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric and Manu Tuilagi. The experienced Tom Croft and first Test try-scorer Alex Cuthbert lose their places on the bench from last week.
“It all comes down to Saturday — the winner takes all. We know we can leave nothing in the tank and that only a complete performance will get us across the line,” Gatland said.
“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,” the coach said.
“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,” he added.
In 1999, Gatland was the first coach to pick O’Driscoll for an international match and 14 years later, has become the first one to drop him
“We told him this morning and he was obviously disappointed, as anyone would be, but he appreciated the fact that he was spoken to before the announcement,” Gatland said. “It’s the first time that any coach has had that decision with him in 15 years of rugby. It’s not easy for that to be the first time, but he’s still going to be very important for us for the next 72 hours in terms of his experience and leadership.”
“It wasn’t about leadership — it was about picking what we felt was the best team,” the coach added. “Alun Wyn gets his opportunity on Saturday. He leads from the front and he’s been outstanding in the lead-up games and was one of the first names on the sheet when he picked the team for the first two Tests.”
The complete lineup for the British and Irish Lions (15-1) is: Leigh Halfpenny; Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North; Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sean O’Brien, Dan Lydiate; Geoff Parling, Alun Wyn Jones (capt); Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard and Alex Corbisiero.