‘O’Mahony has edge that marks him apart as something special’
Lions icons Kiernan and Campbell predict green tint to touring party
THE promise inherent in the squad of bright-faced, eager young tigers, who have capitalised upon the enforced absence of a number of Ireland stalwarts, raises hopes of a big Irish contribution to the Lions touring squad heading to Australia in June.
And a healthy Irish involvement is predicted by two former Lions, Michael Kiernan and Ollie Campbell.
The injuries suffered have been a bitter blow to a number of Ireland's permanent fixtures in an international shirt. Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Rory Best have all been hit hard in recent times and Ireland's rugby has been poorer as a result.
The inability of the aforementioned to contribute fully to the Heineken Cup for their provinces and to Ireland's most recent internationals has, inevitably, impacted negatively on their prospects of travelling with the Lions. However, Best is already back playing and both O'Driscoll and Kearney are expected to be involved with Leinster this weekend.
Hopefully, they, and those others mentioned, can return to full combative health in time to underline their competitive class and persuade the Lions' selectors of a compelling need to bring them on tour.
In their absence, the provincial coaches and, indeed Declan Kidney, have had to look for alternatives. And the encouraging news is that a clutch of uninhibited young players have stepped forward to show the sort of potential that suggests Warren Gatland and company will have to consider augmenting his squad with a number of first-time Lions, born and bred in the same traditions as Ireland's iconic veterans.
One potential Lion, according to Kiernan, is Peter O'Mahony, the young flanker who has made a hugely positive start to his fledgling international career and who the former Ireland centre believes "has that edge that marks him apart as something special".
For Campbell, another player with Lions potential is Ulster's Craig Gilroy. He announced his presence on the international stage with the power of a tsunami in November and his try-scoring debut against Argentina will not have gone unnoticed by the Lions' selectors.
He will, of course, need to do something special during the Six Nations if he is to force his way into the squad but the potential is there.
There are, of course, some certainties. Both Kiernan and two-times tourist Campbell have Cian Healy, Kearney, O'Driscoll and Jonathan Sexton in their touring parties. O'Connell would also be a shoo-in for Campbell but for his injury.
"If Munster don't qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup and Paul doesn't get enough game time, he could miss out," opined Campbell. "Otherwise he would be an absolute certainty to travel."
Both would also have Ferris in their touring party. But, again, fitness is an issue with the Ulster flanker. He is expected to play some part in the latter stages of the Six Nations but no fixed date has been floated for a possible return.
It might seem surprising to some that both Campbell and Kiernan envisage a large Irish presence in the Lions squad – given Ireland's travails in New Zealand last summer. Had you picked a Lions squad after the game in Hamilton there might have been only token representation.
But the performance and result against Argentina has lifted morale and expectations and Ireland will start next month's Six Nations Championship with confidence.
The doomsayers would have you believe that there is no chance of toppling either France or England in the championship, even though Ireland play both at Lansdowne Road.
There is some merit to the suggestion that France are on an upward trajectory, while England's victory over New Zealand was certainly impressive. But was Ireland's performance against Argentina any less impressive?
The team that performed so magnificently against the Pumas will be augmented by O'Driscoll, Kearney, Best and possibly Ferris before the tournament is over. Were Ireland to win the Grand Slam, the championship or even a Triple Crown, and do so scoring tries then Gatland will, inevitably, reach for the Irish card.
The Irish reputation as good tourists will be a factor. They have contributed hugely over the years to the well-being and to the general mood of a touring party by their easy, outgoing personalities.
Players like Keith Wood, Donncha O'Callaghan have been lauded, in the many books that invariably surface after the completion of a tour, for the spirit of fun and good humour they brought to the group on days when they were not working hard in training and preparation.
"The Irish always tour well," said Campbell. "It's the combination of our good temperament, our sociable and friendly nature off the pitch and our fierce competitive spirit and will to win on the field that makes Irish players so valued on these tours.
"The successful tours – and not just the four tours won – have always had a strong Irish representation."
In 1983, the touring party spent 10 weeks in New Zealand. Of course times have changed hugely since then and all the players who will tour Australia will be professionals. The atmosphere in the party will be the same though.
"All successful Lions tours have been happy ones," added Kiernan. "It's not just about playing the game. The players playing the best rugby will start the Tests. That's a given. What happens away from the pitch is just as important.
"When you're on a Tour of this nature you can't be selfish. Of course fellas need to be competitive but you have to buy into the collective to make the whole thing work. It's finding the right mix that's the difference between a successful tour and one that's not."
As ever, injuries will have a major impact on any Lions squad. Were the squad departing for Australia today, it would do so without a number of players who would certainly come into the mix for a Test start.
Gatland will certainly have the majority of his squad pencilled in at this juncture but the real auditions are held over the next three months. In real terms, players from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales have probably seven games in which to impress the coach – the two remaining Heineken Cup Pool matches and five Six Nations games.
By the time the Heineken Cup quarter-finals are contested, the likes of Leinster, Munster, Ospreys, Scarlets and Northampton could be out of the competition which would deny the Lions coaches the chance of seeing potential Test players in the heat of European battle.
Exceptions will be made for marquee players like O'Connell, Bowe and even Ferris but there is no substitute for seeing how players perform in pressure matches and, with the greatest of respect, Pro12 games do not provide the same challenges as internationals and European competition matches.
The Six Nations games are, according to both Campbell and Kiernan, key to determining the make-up of the squad, as it has always been. The auditions start this weekend across the Pro12 and the Premiership with certain Top 14 games also coming into focus, with Mike Phillips plying his trade at Bayonne.
But the real decisions will start to be made in the head-to-head battles between individuals on the international stage. "How Rory Best goes in the games against Wales and England will be key for him I think," added Kiernan.
The Lions will play three Tests against the Wallabies and seven tour matches, including a warm-up against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.