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As much as anyone, Brian O’Driscoll desperately wants to be a part of a Lions Test series win at the fourth time of asking. Accordingly, no one looked more down in the dumps in the aftermath of coming within five minutes of ticking that box on Saturday. But come tomorrow, after a couple of down days, he’ll be leading the charge, not least, on the presumption he’s picked, he’ll almost certainly be captain.
In Noosa on Sunday, less than 24 hours after the one-point second Test defeat, despite a restorative dip in the sea, O’Driscoll was a far cry from the upbeat, optimistic figure he cut the day before the first Test in Brisbane, even if he spoke with his customary common-sense. But then again, perhaps a downbeat mood should be expected. There would be something wrong if the Lions, and O’Driscoll especially, weren’t still feeling the raw pain of the Melbourne defeat for a day or two.
“You have to have a little bit of a mourning period after any loss, but the spirits of the guys have been picked up. It’s just being able to unwind a little bit to build up again for Saturday. It is important to be able to feel the disappointment because if you try to banish it immediately it will come back to you, and it still does at times throughout the day. You kind of think how scenarios could be different, having a series in the bag rather than one still to go and fight for.
‘Focus on target’
“But then after a couple of days you just have to have the ability to shelve it and focus on the target. One more 80 minutes this season is all that is asked of everyone in the squad, the 80 minutes of their lives.”
Lots of key decisions for Lions management
A couple of down days away from the thousands of Lions fans in Australia may even be for the best, and O’Driscoll maintained that the fifth week of the tour, ie the second Test week, was more of a challenge to the squad given many of those in the non-match day 23 probably felt their tour was over.
“But I have been unbelievably impressed with the whole squad, the manner in which they have carried themselves. It’s all for the betterment of the team, not about the individual. That is what I like about this squad – we are still pretty tight and we all want the common goal, irrespective of who is in that 23 and who are the lucky ones.”
Almost no one in the squad will feel sure of his place, including O’Driscoll. “Particularly when you have lost a game, I imagine every place is up for scrutiny, at least, as to whether the person deserves to be in the jersey again, and when you don’t win it is all the more so,” admitted O’Driscoll. “I won’t go chewing my nails off thinking about it, I will go with the flow like everyone else does. Hopefully, I will be included in that team. If I am not, I will deal with that if the situation arises.”
He also maintained there was more of a momentum shift following Australia’s series-levelling win in Melbourne a dozen years ago, when the Wallabies won by 34-15, as opposed to a brace of Tests decided by two and one-point margins. “I think the team that turns up on Saturday and gets some momentum from early in the game, will get the upper hand.”
That seemed a particularly pertinent point given how the first two Tests panned out, and given that the Lions are now in their 11th month of the British and Irish season – not including pre-season. A dozen years ago, the Lions failed to score a single point in the final quarters of all three Tests. On this tour the Lions haven’t scored a try in the final 20 minutes of the four biggest games on tour, against Australia (losing the last quarter’s 3-6 and 3-7) and the Reds (outscored by 3-5 in the last 20).
Indeed, they only outscored the Brumbies by 3-0 in the final quarter and still lost. In other words, you’d think that the Lions would need to be at least a score, and probably two, ahead entering the last 15 minutes or so, as a comeback is even more likely to beyond them than the Aussies next Saturday.
Revealingly, he spoke of the Lions’ conflicting mentality last Saturday, his “frustration” as a back wanting “to play with ball in hand, but we were trying to play a smart game as well. We held a six-point lead up until the 74th minute, and sometimes you are just trying to see the game through without playing anything spectacularly, just play smart Test football. Sometimes that entails kicking the ball and getting good kick-chase and just playing somewhat limited, but smart, football.”
For O’Driscoll personally, as well as the rest of the squad, Saturday’s third Test is a truly momentous occasion. His last ever Lions Test match. And reaching the ideal emotional pitch, so as not to repeat the mistakes of last Saturday and not leave themselves drained in the final quarter, is imperative.
And for a 34-year-old, even one as vintage as him, three such games on successive Saturdays would be a tall ask.
Lots of key decisions for Lions management
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“You can’t let the emotion take over. You have to have a certain amount of emotion in all games and in games where the stakes are as high as they are this weekend that has to come into play. But I think accuracy is vitally important. Both teams lacked accuracy on Saturday at times.
“There were some unforced errors from both sides, and to string phases together you have to be accurate. We struggled to play multi-phase at times, and you have to do that against good defences.”
Asked if he would have taken one-all going into the third Test, O’Driscoll was honest enough to admit: “No, because you always back yourself to win it in two. It’s 1-1 now, that’s how we find ourselves.
“There was a really good analogy from Jonny Sexton today,” he added, revealing how his Leinster team-mate had typically placed a salient spin on the Lions’ current situation. “Sitting on the plane, he said it’s rare after a cup final that you get the chance to relive a cup final again and put the things you did wrong right. It is a quite rare situation you get to do that.”
Nothing has actually changed in that sense, even if it just has felt like it in the fall-out of last Saturday loss. But the shot at forever is still only 80 minutes away.