Since the game went professional three decades ago, Ireland's representation to the Lions has been a healthy one, though the 1997 tour saw just four Irish internationals make the cut.
That quartet however made a valuable contribution to a rare series victory on South African soil.
Paul Wallace, who replaced Peter Clohessy, and Jeremy Davidson started all three Tests, while Eric Miller was on the pitch for Jeremy Guscott’s series winning drop-goal in Durban. A groin injury ruled Keith Wood out of the final test, effectively a dead rubber, having started both of the memorable victories over the Springboks.
As Ireland’s fortunes have improved on the pitch, so too has the supply line to the touring party. Only in 2001 (six) and 2013 (nine) has Ireland failed to reach double figures in representation in the original squads.
The peak of the Irish powers came in 2009, a time when Ireland were Grand Slam winners and Leinster replaced Munster at the top of the European tree. That year 14 men were chosen with Paul O’Connell named as captain.
Over the years many Irish players have been on either side of the injury rollercoaster. Jerry Flannery and Alan Quinlan were robbed of the chance of pulling on the famous jersey in 2009, four years after Simon Easterby profited from Lawrence Dallaglio’s withdrawal to claim a Test spot in New Zealand.
The question from an Irish perspective – and such issues are naturally viewed through a parochial prism – how many Irish players will travel to take on the world champions?
Fans and pundits have been poring over selection possibilities all season, and tomorrow Warren Gatland will put an end to the speculation and name his 36-man squad.
Four years ago Ireland made up just over a quarter of the squad (11 of 41) and 25% representation this time around (nine from 36) is in and around what we can expect.
Last month Sunday Times journalist Stephen Jones put eight Irish players in his squad, this week former Lions manager Donal Lenihan suggested double figures, provided Johnny Sexton is declared fully fit for selection.
Here is a rundown of the chances of some of the Irish contingent.
ON THE PLANE
Having started all three Tests in New Zealand, the Wexford man is among the best tightheads in the business. After returning from injury, the bustling prop started Ireland’s final three games in the Six Nations, including a scrummaging masterclass against England on the final day. A certain traveller, in pole position to start.
One of Ireland’s form players of 2021, the Leinster centre shone for Ireland even when the team as a whole struggled in the opening two defeats of the Six Nations. A lynchpin in defence and more of a threat with ball in hand, Henshaw has strengthened his case immeasurably for a starting Test berth.
Has come under pressure for the nine jersey at international level, but the Munster man successfully kept the challengers at bay and appeared far more assured as the season wore on. An automatic pick on the previous two tours, he faces stiffer competition this time around from the likes of Gareth Davies and Ali Price, but with Ben Youngs not travelling to South Africa, is well set to take his place among the touring party.
A colossus for Ireland and now a key figure in the pack. His lineout prowess makes him appealing to selectors and will look to continue his form whether he is chosen at lock, or more likely, as a backrow option.
Twelve months ago all the smart money was on a youthful, athletic lock combination of Maro Itoje and James Ryan taking the game to South Africa. Since then Itoje has fallen foul of Saracen’s transgressions, and his Test form, and in particular his discipline, has led to questions marks over the Englishman’s credentials as a captain. Ryan too has had a slight dip in form, with enforced time on the sidelines not helping his case. Still, the 24-year-old is likely to be competing most strongly with Itoje and Alun Wyn-Jones for two starting spots.
The issue at play here is the Ireland captain’s fitness. Seeking to take part in his third tour, the 35-year-old missed the Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle as he continues his recovery from a head injury.
Leinster are making all the right noises that Sexton will be available for selection, but will Gatland take the risk in what is normally considered the most attritional of tours? The versatility and experience of Owen Farrell, the reliability of Dan Biggar (not to mention aerial ability) and wildcard nature of Finn Russell means the head coach is not short of options, but if the medical all-clear is given, Gatland may well opt for the man who played the full 80 in Ireland’s last three wins and played comfortably more minutes (310) at out-half than Biggar (294), Russell (284) and Farrell, who played just the first 69 minutes there against Scotland and the last four games at '12’.
An all-Irish centre partnership against South Africa is not beyond the realms of possibility. His electric footwork could come into good use against a stubborn Springbok defence, and remains one of Ireland’s best defenders.
Competing against one of the world’s best in Tadhg Furlong is bringing his game to new heights. Despite losses to Wales and France in the opening two games of the Six Nations campaign, Porter did his credentials no harm at all with Furlong sidelined. Added bonus of being able to switch to loosehad if required.
The Ulster captain came into the Ireland team for round two against France as captain and remained there for the course of the campaign. Another with previous touring experience, Henderson is a player who could force his way into a match-day squad given his ability to cover lock and backrow.
Selected in 2013 before an ankle injury ruled him out, Cian Healy could strike late in his decorated career to make the Lions cut.
Was running out of time in his recovery from injury to remind the Lions coaching team what he can offer, but showed glimpses in green and in the Challenge Cup with Ulster that his style could potentially stretch the Boks defence.
Will Warren Gatland take note of Billy Vunipola’s below-par form in an England jersey and the fact he was playing in the second tier with Saracens? If he does, the Leinster man comes right into the reckoning.
Failed to dislodge Rob Herring when it mattered, but is very much the future for Ireland. The strength in depth at hooker for the Lions is not what it has been in previous years, but remains more unlikely than likely.
The South African is travelling home after deciding to hang up his boots, but could the abrasive backrower return to his homeland for a final swansong? Against a monstrous pack and effective ball carriers, Stander would certainly carry the fight to his fellow countrymen on that front.
Gatland was part of the Lions set-up that put faith in a 21-year-old Earls for the last tour of South Africa, despite the Munster man not featuring for Ireland in the previous Six Nations campaign. A master of consistency in the Irish back three, his superbly-taken try against England served notice that he offers a serious threat to opposition defences.
His most high-profile Lions moment to date is arguably the prank call on then Munster head coach Rob Penney during the 2013 tour after his call-up, but the departing Racing 92 would certainly bring an x-factor to proceedings.
Prior to Covid, the clamour for the rejuvenated Ulster scrum-half to replace Conor Murray were growing louder and louder. The break in sport, coupled with his own slide in form that saw his provincial place under threat, didn’t do the 30-year-old any favours, but has since found his rhythm with Ulster and provides another goal-kicking option.
There is a chance that his international understudy Rónan Kelleher could be chosen ahead of him, but the Ulster hooker will be itching to get the chance to play against his fellow countrymen. A solid, yet unspectacular operator.
With Stuart Hogg the favourite for the 15 jersey as things stand, and Liam Williams equally comfortable at full-back or on the wing, Keenan seems unlikely to dislodge either of those two. Given the talent available on the wing to Gatland, the 24-year-old seems more likely as a call-up option
But for injury, there’s a good chance the 24-year-old would have a much stronger hand to play. Didn’t feature in the Six Nations and is continuing to work his way back from a calf injury.
Midway through the Six Nations had Will Greenwood extolling his Lions credentials. A replacement in the first two rounds, a starter against Italy and Scotland, an injury sustained in the lead-up to the finale against England means he hasn’t featured since, with his last provincial outing at the end of January. The other man to wear this seven jersey this season, Josh van der Flier, may lack the sheer size and physicality to be a serious contender.
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