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9 Irish Lions off to Australia but only Sexton and Healy guaranteed starters

Brian O’Driscoll, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien have good chances but the other Irishmen may be dirt-trackers.

Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney in 2009.
Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney in 2009.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

NINE IRISHMEN IN the 2013 Lions squad is as good as it could have possibly got for Ireland after a season in which we finished fifth in the Six Nations and had just one representative in the Heineken Cup semi finals.

Neither of the two Irish players to make it onto the ERC Player of the Year shortlist, Rory Best and Simon Zebo, made it into the 37-man squad but it is hard to imagine that they are not on the stand-by list that Warren Gatland insists he has not drawn up. Gatland also told us that he would not be selecting players on reputation yet Dan Lydiate, Tommy Bowe and Alun Wyn Jones – with a combined dozen games behind them in 2013 – all travel.

The lack of Best, Zebo and Peter O’Mahony, a man Jeremy Guscott told us was Ireland’s player of the Six Nations, has been offset by the inclusion of three players that were precariously placed: Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney.

The healthy number of Irishmen does not necessarily mean we will not be cheering for a starting XV full of Welsh and Englishmen come the First Test on 22 June. We are seven weeks to kick-off at Suncrorp Stadium but here are the current chances of the Irish Lions starting against the Wallabies.

Jonathan Sexton

The outhalf is thought of very highly beyond Irish shores, so much so that Racing Metro are set to make him the Top 14′s highest earner next season. In the past two weeks, coinciding with a successful return for Leinster, former Lions such as Will Greenwood, Jeremy Guscott and David Wallace have expressed their belief that Sexton will start against the Wallabies. His case was boosted by Owen Farrell’s trip to outhalf school at Twickenham when Jonny Wilkinson called the shots in a Heineken Cup semi final win. Starting chance: 8/10

Tommy Bowe

Back for Ulster and scoring tries on the left and right wings. His start out left for Ulster, against Connacht, was timely as Gatland has loaded his squad with five players that can take the 14 jersey. Performed well in South Africa four years ago and is thought of highly in the Lions coaching ranks. The major obstacles to a Bowe start are the Welshmen George North and Alex Cuthbert. Cuthbert’s hamstring injury, sustained in his two-try performance against England, has yet to fully heal. Starting chance: 5/10

Brian O’Driscoll

The moment he slipped Simon Zebo in for the opening try against Wales it seemed O’Driscoll’s seat on the plane was booked. The outside centre endured a bruising Six Nations thereafter but his form with Leinster has led to chants of ‘One More Year’. With Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies off the boil for Wales in a winning Six Nations campaign, the popular view at present is that O’Driscoll will be paired with Manu Tuilagi in an early tour game. That will be the acid test. Who plays 12 and who plays 13 is another matter. Starting chance: 7/10

Jamie Heaslip

It was heartening for most Irish rugby supporters to see Heaslip run amok against Biarritz last weekend but, as some pundits have observed, the fact that he stood out demonstrates a lack of consistent cutting edge in the Irish captains game. The No.8 plays a similar, ball-carrying style to Toby Faletau and may find himself playing the back-up role to the Dragons forward. Starting chance: 5/10

Cian Healy

Ever since the won a man-of-the-match award against Australia at the 2011 World Cup, Healy has been earmarked for the loosehead prop role on the Lions Tour. He has performed outstandingly against South Africa, Argentina and Wales in the past six months but dog-eared then blotted, then burned his copybook by a cruel stamp on Dan Cole in the Ireland v England game at the Aviva Stadium. With Mako Vunipola expected to be an impact sub, Healy’s main competition will come from Toulon’s very busy Gethin Jenkins and the versatile Matt Stevens. Starting chance: 8/10

Conor Murray

Even before Eoin Reddan’s unfortunate leg break, there was no doubting who Ireland’s number one scrum-half was. While he may look twice before allowing a pass to cross the backline, Murray has taken off on more snipes this season and has six tries for Munster this season. His similarities to the robust Mike Philips means he travels but Murray and England’s Ben Youngs look to be scrapping it out for the back-up scrumhalf role. Still, this tour will do wonders for Murray’s confidence. Starting chance 4/10

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Paul O’Connell

O’Connell’s tour-de-force against Harlequins must have elicited a sigh of relief from Gatland and his coaching crew. The lock has not played for Ireland in over a year and surgery on a bulging disc in his back could have ended another season prematurely. O’Connell set his sights on a comeback in time for the Heineken Cup knockout stages and passed every test put to him. The temptation would be to team him up with Alun Wyn Jones but Geoff Parling and Richie Gray [Scotland need someone to cheer] will have something to say about that. Starting chance: 7/10

Rob Kearney

The decision to bring three fullbacks has spared Gatland from making a tough decision between Stuart Hogg and Kearney. The Irishman pushed Jamie Roberts very close for the 2009 Lions Player of the Series and won the ERC Player of the Year last season. A back injury incurred early in the current season hampered Kearney and an attacking spark has been lacking since his return in January. For all the talk of Leigh Halfpenny playing on the wing, Gatland is almost certain to hand him the 15 jersey along with the kicking tee. Starting chance: 5/10

Sean O’Brien

Another former ERC Player of the Year, O’Brien has had a solid if unspectacular season. Almost everything Ireland tried in the Six Nations went through O’Brien first. Flashes of his bullocking best but Justin Tipuric’s efforts for club and country have overshadowed all of his back row contenders. A major plus for the Tullow Tank is the fact that he can cover all three positions at the rear of the pack. Starting chance: 6/10

All photos ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

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