Sunday 18 February 2018

Irish pride and Lions places on the line in battle of Rome

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Once a Lion, always a Lion. You never forget that special experience. The fact that the force of four has made the transition from amateur to professional, growing in impetus by the season, guarantees it is here to stay.

Whereas the Barbarian concept is muddled, the standing of the Lions is crystal clear.

While the 1997 trek to South Africa represented the first tour of the professional age, if pushed to pick a watershed moment, I would say it came four years on from that Down Under.

By 2001, the professional game was really kicking in and the second Lions tour of the open era was under way. None of us covering that tour had any idea what level of Lions support was in Australia... until, that is, we got to Brisbane and to the Gabba for the opening test.

As long as I live, I will never forget the sensation of walking into the Brisbane Cricket Stadium that night. To describe the first Test venue as a sea of red would almost do it a disservice such was the level of support for the Lions in the ground.


That was the night Graham Henry's Lions ripped the Wallabies apart, when Jason Robinson went dancing and, just as he had done for Ireland in Paris 12 months before, Brian O'Driscoll waltzed in from just inside the half to beneath the posts for one of the all time great individual Lions tries.

'Waltzing O'Driscoll' became the touring anthem for players and supporters alike from there in. But more than that – despite losing in the next two Tests and the series – the future of Lions rugby was assured by what transpired that night.

The only rugby occasion that has outdone it for me was when England pitched up in Croke Park for the very first time. That was the day we announced to the watching world our coming of age as a nation.

And that fantastic night in Brisbane was the defining moment for four-country rugby.

I think it appropriate to remind ourselves just what is at stake when the final series of Six Nations games play themselves out in Rome, Cardiff and Paris this afternoon.

This is the final trial for Lions selection and while some latitude will be given to players recovering, Paul O'Connell, Richie Gray, Tommy Bowe to name but a few, it is form throughout this tournament that will provide the basis for selection.

To that end, there is that individual as well as collective prize on offer when the team in green takes its place in the Colosseum that is the Stadio Olimpico.

Up until now, possible Lions selection has been parked in the back of players' minds. But in the build-up to Rome, thoughts will have been turning to what might just lie ahead.

It's been at best a mixed campaign, stretching from the high of Cardiff (so much for early momentum) to the low of Murrayfield.

Individual form has fluctuated in many cases, but with rock-solid consistency from Cian Healy (moment of madness excluded), Sean O'Brien, Brian O'Driscoll and Jonny Sexton (injury allowing), these four should be Warren Gatland's nailed-on Irish certainties.

In 2009, having just won the Grand Slam, we supplied no fewer than 14 players to the original Lions squad travelling to South Africa, although subsequent injury deprived Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary that opportunity. Suspension dealt Alan Quinlan the cruellest blow. But for the three who dropped out, John Hayes and Gordon D'Arcy were added to the tour, making it 13 Irish Lions in all and with O'Connell as captain.

That selection reflected Six Nations form at the time and is precisely why there should be little bitching should England and/or Wales dominate the 2013 party pending the outcome in Cardiff today. That said, for a number of Irish players – possibly as many as eight – today's performance against the re-energised Azzurri is massive.

In descending order, Conor Murray, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Rob Kearney top the list. Today is massive for all four and, while he has struggled to hit the levels we know he is capable, Jamie Heaslip is still very much in the mix. A big one from the Ireland skipper today and Australia beckons, despite the nasty criticism fired his way since assuming the captaincy.

Beyond that, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Peter O'Mahony, possibly Iain Henderson too, are in the 'new kids' frame. While O'Connell and Bowe are not ruled out, their selection will be dependant upon the form of those in action elsewhere.

On that basis, realistically, their chances must be slim.

A solid team performance culminating in a win and it's case made. A third Six Nations defeat and whatever Lions action comes our way, we must accept graciously.

It is at times like this we need leaders to stand up and be counted. For those who do, the ticket to Oz could be the bonus.

There is genuine cause for concern, particularly with Sexton's injury setback, but I take Ireland to make it 18 wins in the fixture on the bounce.

Irish Independent

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