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Tight calls could be cruel to Irish contingent as Gatland finalises his Lions squad

The 36-man squad will be revealed at lunchtime on Thursday.

James Ryan and Iain Henderson are both hoping to be included in Warren Gatland's Lions squad.
James Ryan and Iain Henderson are both hoping to be included in Warren Gatland's Lions squad.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

Updated May 6th 2021, 8:50 AM

COME ONE O’CLOCK today we’ll know the make-up of Warren Gatland’s 36-man squad for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, but for now, we’re still in guesswork territory.

We’ve all seen the usual predicted Lions squads doing the rounds since the Six Nations. Former Ireland players tend to be kinder towards those in green. Ex-England internationals can seem blinkered towards their own, as if the last four months didn’t happen. The former Welsh internationals think they should have half the squad. The Scots just don’t want to be ignored.

Thing is, it only matters what one man thinks, so let’s try put ourselves in Gatland’s shoes for a moment as we assess the chances of Ireland’s hopefuls.

Since Christmas, the Lions boss has watched Ireland struggle against Wales and France before finding some rhythm against Italy and Scotland. An impressive win over England in Dublin will have made a lasting impression. 

Since then, he’ll have seen Munster’s key men watch a Pro14 final against Leinster pass them by, before a much improved performance in the Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse. 

Leinster’s stars looked at their brilliant best in their Champions Cup win over Exeter only to fall short against a physically dominant La Rochelle. Gatland will have watched that and thought back to their loss against Saracens last September, and their 2019 final defeat to the same team. 

He will have watched Ulster beat a disinterested Harlequins at the Stoop and back that up with a good win away at Northampton Saints, before the province surrendered commanding leads against both Connacht and Leicester Tigers. That’s a big black mark.

He’ll have tuned in to watched Connacht and admired their tenacity and spirit, but rued the fact Bundee Aki hasn’t been available.

So, who will have played their way into his plans?

There are probably only three Irish players you could consider to be nailed on for inclusion. Tadhg Furlong may well be the first name on the teamsheet, never mind the squad list. Robbie Henshaw won’t be too far behind, and Conor Murray looks well placed to be the starting Test scrum-half.

After that, it all gets a little foggier.

We’ll start in the backfield, where it is possible Gatland will select a combination of back three options which includes no Irish players. Hugo Keenan must be a contender given his form and how quickly he has settled into Test rugby, but may not have the physical presence Gatland will want against the Springboks. 

jacob-stockdale-and-sean-oobrien Jacob Stockdale's versatility could work in his favour. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Jacob Stockdale can cover both wing and fullback but has yet to rediscover his best form since returning from injury. Jordan Larmour has also struggled to influence games the way he would have liked, and James Lowe probably fell out of contention mid-way through the Six Nations.

Keith Earls enjoyed an excellent Six Nations for Ireland, but Gatland has no shortage of form wingers to pick from England, Wales and Scotland, with Louis Rees-Zammit and Anthony Watson leading the way, while Duhan van der Merwe offers that nice blend of an eye for the try-line and an appetite for the hard defensive work.

The Irish picture looks a little more encouraging as Gatland considers his midfield. Henshaw is in the form of his life and has both the attacking spark and defensive nous to shine in South Africa.

His Leinster teammate, Garry Ringrose, has had a difficult season on the injury front but probably has enough credit in the bank. Aki possesses the kind of relentless physicality that will be needed against the ‘Boks but will have suffered from playing so little rugby this year.

robbie-henshaw-and-bundee-aki Robbie Henshaw is in the form of his life. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Murray’s Six Nations form put him in the driving seat to claim the No 9 shirt, but hopes of an all-Irish half-back pairing may have been dashed by Johnny Sexton’s recent injury issues.

Sexton played some brilliant rugby in the Six Nations and brings hugely valuable leadership qualities, but is currently stood down from action having suffered three head injuries since the turn of the year. Given Gatland has previously voiced concerns over the out-half’s durability, it is not hard to see him being overlooked for what would be his third Lions tour, with Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell offering a nice variety of options.

The lack of strong competition at scrum-half provides the smallest glimmer of hope for Ireland out-cast John Cooney.

In the front row, Furlong will travel and could well be joined on the plane by Andrew Porter, who offers an explosive bench option and carries the added bonus of being able to cover both sides of the scrum, even if it’s been quite a while since he actually put that to practice.

tadhg-furlong-and-andrew-porter-celebrate-with-the-guinness-pro14-trophy There is a strong chance Leinster will have two tightheads in the Lions squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

At loosehead Cian Healy has struggled for consistency but will remain an attractive pick, and might benefit from having a fan on Gatland’s coaching team in the form of Leinster scrum coach Robin McBryde. 

Gatland will also see the value in a player like Rónan Kelleher, perhaps the most realistic of all the potential ‘bolters’ from Ireland. The 23-year-old hooker has started only three Test games for his country but can offer Gatland something totally different from the bench, and represents a more dynamic pick than Rob Herring.

The second row looks Ireland’s strongest position in terms of Lions candidates, with three quality contenders to challenge a likely partnership of Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones, who arrives fresh from leading an unfancied Wales squad to another Six Nations championship.

Iain Henderson was immense during the Six Nations and is probably Ireland’s form lock. Tadhg Beirne could hardly have done more to argue his case and again, brings the bonus of being able to cover the backrow, something which is more valuable than ever in a reduced 36-man squad.

A few short months ago it would have been unthinkable to name a Lions squad without James Ryan, but the Leinster man is now relying on reputation, rather than form as he continues to find his feet following an injury-disrupted Six Nations. The tour probably comes a season too soon for Ryan Baird.

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tadhg-beirne-celebrates-winning-a-penalty-at-the-scrum Tadhg Beirne emerged as one of Ireland's key men in the Six Nations. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The backrow is another department which could be cruel to Ireland, despite the feeling that it is an area where the national squad – and Leinster in particular – are spoilt for choice.

Beirne is a good option to provide cover, with the ever-reliable CJ Stander tailor made to take on the ‘Boks big ball carriers and get the Lions over the gainline on what would be his last dance as a professional rugby player. 

Beyond that, we’re back to guesswork. Josh van der Flier’s defensive stats continue to stand out and he must have featured heavily in the selection conversations. Jack Conan has made a massive impact since the tail-end of the Six Nations but it may be too little, too late given the strong alternatives available to Gatland, and like the rest of the Leinster pack he struggled to wrestle some momentum back for his team as the tide swung against La Rochelle.

Caelan Doris looked to be forging himself a smooth path to South Africa before concussion issues effectively ended his season just as it mattered most, while Will Connors was also making the right impressions before his own injury issues.

Peter O’Mahony came into 2021 at the height of his powers, but by his own admission probably hasn’t played enough rugby due to suspension and injury.

cj-stander CJ Stander could end his playing career on a high with a Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All told, it is likely that many Irish players will be waiting in vain for their phones to light up this morning. After a mixed Six Nations and a disappointing end to the provinces’ European campaigns, the simple fact is Gatland has a strong pool of players to choose from, and those in contention from Ireland could fall on the wrong side of some of his tighter calls.

With that in mind, it is worth remembering that today’s announcement does not shut the door for those who miss out. Injuries always strike on a Lions tour, and we only have to look at how this year’s Champions Cup played out for a reminder of how quickly a few cases of Covid can quickly derail best laid plans.

Hopefully we don’t see too much disruption, but for those who don’t get the call, the advice is to keep the phone switched on over the next few weeks.

You never know when Warren might need you to jump on a plane. 

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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