Irish stars losing out on Lions share
Six Nations implosion leaves hopefuls struggling to catch Gatland’s eye, writes David Kelly
With so much sound and fury attending Ireland's championship implosion, has anyone considered that perhaps Warren Gatland is to blame?
After all, he is becoming a bit of a jinx to his old side. In his role as head coach for this summer's Lions tour to Australia, Gatland has spent a week embedded in the respective home nations' training camps during the build-up to Six Nations encounters.
Three weeks ago, Gatland was in the England camp ahead of their clash with Ireland in Dublin. Result? Ireland lost. Last week, the Kiwi spent a day with the Scots. Result? Ireland lost.
Of course, all this is mere coincidence. Gatland is popping into all the camps purely as an observer and he has absolute zero influence, as it should be. Nevertheless, those of a superstitious disposition will perhaps be thankful that Ireland's final two opponents are of the continental variety.
Incidentally, Gatland's appointment with the Irish was, intriguingly, delayed for as long as possible – he won't pitch up in Co Kildare until the week leading up to the Italian game.
By that stage, it is more likely than not that one of his successors as Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, will be on his last legs and primed for an unwanted summer holiday.
Some of his current players may also be nervously anticipating the same fate as so many of them struggle for form amidst such a disappointing championship campaign.
In 2009, Ireland posted a record 14 names in the initial Lions squad selected by Ian McGeechan to tour South Africa, including the captain, Paul O'Connell. They are unlikely to repeat that spectacular collection this time around.
Last Monday, as Gatland joined his management and coaching staff in another selection conclave before jetting to New York on another of the interminable Lions sponsorship bashes, it is quite conceivable that the green-tinted nature of the putative squad took another hit.
At the end of November, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip were live contenders to captain the squad, particularly as Chris Robshaw suffered a succession of damaging crises of leadership in autumn series losses for a struggling England.
Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo were leading the back-line charge and, even though a half-dozen Irish were sidelined – Stephen Ferris, O'Connell, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney, Rory Best, O'Driscoll – they were still deemed certainties to make the April 30 cut.
Three months on from when both Keith Wood and Jeremy Guscott picked putative sides featuring not a single Englishman, the landscape has altered dramatically.
England are dreaming of a Grand Slam, while Ireland are slugging it out in the Six Nations basement. Robshaw would need to become involved in something absolutely outrageous to be stripped of his inevitable captaincy.
All the while, O'Connell is now almost completely out of contention and others – either through desperate form (Kearney) or an unfortunate injury (Zebo) – could see their hopes fritter away on the breeze.
As an increasingly disconsolate and dispirited Irish squad pitched up once more in their Carton House camp last night, the last thing on their minds will be this summer's Lions tour.
Or is that truly the case? With the Irish international season now disintegrating into an undignified scrap to avoid the wooden spoon, it would be understandable if players' personal priorities begin to switch slightly towards one of the pinnacles of the rugby calendar.
So much can still change with just two months remaining until selection D-Day. Just ask Sam Warburton, who was odds-on to be Lions captain a few months ago and is now uncertain to even make the touring squad.
In 2009, O'Connell was the only captain from that year's Six Nations championship to make the original party so opinion, as much as form and injury, can even at this late stage radically shake up the selection. The clock is ticking.
Since returning to full fitness, there had been a general assumption that the 2009 first-choice, Kearney, would waltz back into the 2013 version. That has not happened and he has suffered disproportionately from Ireland's slump in form, being outplayed by all three direct opponents so far.
Ultra-safe Leigh Halfpenny and attack-minded Stuart Hogg are jostling for a starting berth; Kearney usually combines both these players' strengths but not now, amidst such uncertain form. And he may struggle to make the wing berths, with Wales dominating selection here.
Tommy Bowe just needs to prove his fitness to travel, but is Zebo's short-earned reputation enough to secure a boarding card? Keith Earls' reputation as a utility player and poor form is damaging his prospects.
On the plane – Bowe (if fit)
Departure lounge – Craig Gilroy, Earls, Zebo
Grounded – Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble
Where once it seemed that a repeat perming of Welsh star Jamie Roberts and O'Driscoll might be a distinct possibility, England's emergence and Roberts' dip in form has obliterated those plans. Ever capable of throwing up a curve ball, Gatland could decide to switch O'Driscoll to inside centre – where he does a lot of his best work in any event – and put the rampaging Manu Tuilagi outside him.
Luke Marshall remains a potential bolter, particularly if he shines against France and in the Heineken Cup clash with Saracens against a direct challenger, Brad Barritt.
On the plane – O'Driscoll
Departure lounge – Marshall
Grounded – Gordon D'Arcy
Not much debate at 10, which will worry Gatland as he may only bring two specialist out-halves. Hence concern about Jonny Sexton's current hamstring travails, particularly as Owen Farrell's temperament remains suspect. Conor Murray, a one-time first-choice in many people's eyes, is another to slip in conjunction with his country and it will take a big Heineken Cup effort for him to upset the current pecking order, with a non-Irish trio leading the way here.
On the plane – Sexton
Departure lounge – Murray, Eoin Reddan
Grounded – Ronan O'Gara
The focus on Cian Healy's temper and Best's wonky darts see them struggling to retain their grip on starting berths as others slowly begin to impress.
Richardt Strauss could be the first-choice, but he is currently crocked and may remain so for some time. Dave Kilcoyne may have been an outside bet, but slipping behind Tom Court didn't advance his claims.
On the plane – Healy, Best
Departure lounge – Strauss
Grounded – Kilcoyne, Mike Ross
Ireland's system breakdown in the line-out has not only affected the hooker. Scottish, English and Welsh beanpoles have edged their way to the head of the queue and though Gatland is a Donnacha Ryan fan, he would dearly love to have a fit O'Connell, who has virtually ruled himself out of contention.
On the plane – None
Departure lounge – Ryan
Grounded – Mike McCarthy, O'Connell
As always, an intensely contested area and Ireland boasted four of the seven original picks here four years ago. One-time potential captain Jamie Heaslip is not seen as a likely starter now and is even battling to make the flight on current form, given his Irish travails.
O'Brien's place is a given, but Ferris' injury woes mark him down as a luxury the coach may not be able to afford.
On the plane – O'Brien
Departure lounge – Ferris, Heaslip
Grounded – Peter O'Mahony