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Furlong looks a certainty but plenty of Irish hopes for Lions' Test 23

Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw were pre-tour favourites to start.

Tadhg Furlong is set to continue as the Lions' starting tighthead.
Tadhg Furlong is set to continue as the Lions' starting tighthead.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

SOME DAYS HAVE moved slowly in Lions camp with so little to do on this restricted tour of South Africa but yesterday must have felt even more interminable for the players.

While Warren Gatland and his coaches sat down to select their matchday 23 for this weekend’s first Test against the Springboks, those being discussed simply had to wait.

The squad won’t be officially named until 10am on Thursday, but the Lions players are due to find out who is in and who is out today. Gatland will stand at the top of the meeting room and read 23 names off a sheet. Joy for some, despair for others.

The original seven-man Irish contingent – Rónan Kelleher only arrived last week and hasn’t played – will all have gone to sleep last night with hope in their thoughts.

Tadhg Furlong might have found it the easiest to get into a restful state. He is a strong favourite to retain the number three shirt, having started all three Tests for the Lions back in 2017 and improved as a player since. 

He was outstanding in this year’s Six Nations and has continued his good form on tour. In fairness to Kyle Sinckler, he has been sharp since his late call-up in place of the injured Andrew Porter and looks primed to provide the same bench impact he did four years ago. But Furlong looks like a key man for the Lions.

Conor Murray was the Lions tour captain while Alun Wyn Jones rehabbed his shoulder injury back in Wales and he too is the Lions Test incumbent in his position.

Ali Price has been lively at scrum-half on this tour and showed his attacking threat around the fringes against the Stormers on Saturday but he has played against the weaker opposition, whereas Murray has started against Japan and South Africa A – the only two genuine games the Lions have played.

conor-murray Murray was tour captain after Alun Wyn Jones' injury. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Murray might not have Price’s scooting threat but he is the best kicker and defender of the Lions’ scrum-half options and more than capable of delivering accurate service and excellent decision-making with his passing game.

Robbie Henshaw is another likely Irish starter in the first Test, even after his hamstring issue in recent weeks. The Leinster man was in brilliant form prior to that setback and he got through nearly three-quarters of Saturday’s game against the Stormers to tee himself up for a start this weekend.

Whether it’s at 12 or 13 remains to be seen but Gatland and his coaches have consistently underlined that Henshaw can be an influential figure for the Lions.

There are two genuine Irish contenders for starts in the Lions back row but that area of selection could go a number of different ways. If the warm-up games have been any indication, Tadhg Beirne is in a head-to-head with Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker.

The Englishman hits harder than most people in defence but Beirne is the more rounded rugby player, a possible game-changer who can poach the ball at breakdowns, carry, pass, offload, steal lineout,  and ruck. It would be fascinating to see him let loose on the Boks.

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Meanwhile, Jack Conan has staked a claim for involvement at number eight, even if Taulupe Faletau remains the favourite in that position. Conan has been dynamic in his appearances, showing excellent footwork and robustness through contact, as well as impressive defensive qualities including strong choke tackles.

The second row all depends on whether tour captain Alun Wyn Jones is deemed fit to start alongside Maro Itoje. 

iain-henderson Henderson captained the Lions against the Sharks. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 35-year-old got through 26 minutes of action on his return off the bench against the Stormers and his left shoulder came through seemingly unscathed, but a start against the Springboks is obviously on another planet in terms of demands on the body.

If Jones isn’t ready, Ireland and Ulster lock Iain Henderson is in with a fine shout of starting for the Lions. He has had an outstanding season, provides leadership and lineout nous, and is an explosive, skillful athlete around the pitch.

Wales’ Adam Beard has certainly impressed too and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him involved, while England’s Jonny Hill offers plenty of grunt, but Henderson has left himself well in the mix. Even if Beirne, Conan and/or Henderson don’t start, all would offer value off the Lions’ bench.

While there is sure to be disappointment for some of the candidates as Gatland confirms his selection, the Lions could yet have a fair Irish influence this weekend.

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Murray Kinsella

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