Cooney, Stockdale, and Henderson.
Lions coaches to attend as Ulster and Leicester big guns get last shot
Warren Gatland will name his Lions squad next Thursday.

THE EUROPEAN SEMI-finals this weekend give the players involved one last shot at convincing Warren Gatland and his Lions coaches that they should be named to tour South Africa. 

Gatland will announce his selection next Thursday, with the expectation being that he will confirm a 36-man group.

Gatland and co. will already have the vast majority of their decisions made but four semi-finals in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup could allow a handful of individuals to sway their thinking on any marginal decisions.

Lions attack coach Gregor Townsend and defence coach Steve Tandy will be at Welford Road tomorrow night to take in Ulster’s visit to Leicester, with several players of particular interest.

Ulster skipper Iain Henderson had a superb Six Nations for Ireland to put himself in the mix for a second Lions tour but there is strong competition in that area from the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Jonny Gray, and compatriots James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne.

A dominant performance from Henderson in a strong Ulster showing against the Tigers could be enough to fully convince the Lions staff of his qualities ahead of the trip to South Africa.

Jacob Stockdale may be in contention too in what is another area of strong competition for the Lions, so he will hope to show his ability from Ulster’s number 15 shirt. Versatility will be important for the Lions given their smaller squad size this summer and Stockdale is well established on the left wing too.

John Cooney is seen as a possible wildcard for the Lions even though he hasn’t been an Ireland regular recently. His game-breaking ability and goal-kicking are key strengths and given that the scrum-half slots are among the most open in the Lions squad, he could yet feature.

iain-henderson Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Henderson had an excellent Six Nations. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Earlier this month, the Lions coaches discussed 57 players in total and several of them were not involved in the Six Nations. Cooney was surely mentioned in that discussion.

Ulster hooker Rob Herring has remained first-choice for Ireland despite the emergence of Rónan Kelleher, meaning he too has been in the shop window. That said, Ken Owens, Jamie George, and Luke Cowan-Dickie are strongly in contention for Lions spots.

As for the Leicester team, loosehead prop Ellis Genge and out-half George Ford will have been discussed by the Lions coaches, while their fellow England international Ben Youngs is on the Tigers’ bench.

On Saturday, Townsend and Tandy will be alongside Gatland at the other Challenge Cup semi-final between Bath and Montpellier at the Rec.

Bath’s Anthony Watson and Taulupe Faletau are favoured to tour, while the returning Sam Underhill also has a strong chance of being involved even though he missed the Six Nations through injury. 

While none of the Lions coaches will be able to attend the Champions Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle in France on Sunday, watching that game closely will also be a major part of their agenda for the weekend.

There are a host of Leinster men in contention for Ireland places.

Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong look like certainties to tour, while James Ryan’s successful return from a head injury last weekend against Munster leaves him well primed to remind Gatland exactly how good he is on Sunday in La Rochelle.

Several other Leinster men including Kelleher, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, and Hugo Keenan will be closely scrutinised too before the Lions coaching staff make their final decisions next week.

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