Eamonn Sweeney: Lions battles sure to add extra intrigue
There's undoubtedly an extra bit of spice to a Six Nations where Lions tour places are up for grabs. This year's tour is a particularly attractive one given the absence of an Olympics, major football championships or a Ryder Cup to compete for the limelight. There won't be many bigger things in 2017 than the meeting of the Lions and the All Blacks. And of course a Lions series in New Zealand is the ultimate challenge for the tourists.
Yet there's no denying that unless there's a good number of Irish players in both the touring party and the Test team, the gloss will be knocked off the tour for most of us. Witness all the 'I hope they lose now' comments when Brian O'Driscoll was omitted from the final Test in Australia by Warren Gatland. The O'Driscoll omission is the 'Ollie Campbell getting the nod over Tony Ward' saga of the modern era, the fact that the management proved to be correct and that the team won is judged to be entirely beside the point by many partisans.
If England win this year's Six Nations as easily as they did last year's, chances are they'll dominate the selection to the same extent that they did in 1993, when the team which toured New Zealand had an England and guests feel to it. And with Warren Gatland in charge, no Welsh star will get less than a very fair crack of the selectorial whip. If we want a strong presence of Irish Lions, nothing less than four wins out of five looks to be necessary.
The good news is that were the selections to be made now, we'd probably have a dozen on the plane and four (Furlong, Murray, Henshaw, Best) in the Test XV. The competing claims of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell for the test outhalf spot will provide one of the most fascinating subtexts of the Six Nations, while Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Jack McGrath should all be safe barring injury. The really interesting cases are those on the cusp - Ian Henderson, Simon Zebo, CJ Stander and Devin Toner are probably all pencilled in right now but will all need big Six Nations campaigns to make sure.
On the other hand, Garry Ringrose may currently be just outside the reckoning but has the ability to force himself way up the pecking order, something the likes of Josh van der Flier, Cian Healy and Peter O'Mahony will also be hoping to do. This Six Nations is interesting enough on its own account but those Lions considerations add an extra and very beguiling level of intrigue.
This is going to be one terrific rugby year.
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