Wednesday 20 March 2019

Brendan Fanning: Ireland have 11 Lions - but eight omissions shouldn't schedule summer plans just yet

Sean Cronin (left), Donnacha Ryan (centre) and Garry Ringrose (right).
Sean Cronin (left), Donnacha Ryan (centre) and Garry Ringrose (right).
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If the following welcome on-stage to Sam Warburton suggested a denial of the obvious – “Sam, many many congratulations…the secret is finally out” – then at least the unveiling of rest of the Lions squad had enough long-odds runners to keep everyone interested.

And for Ireland there is a touch of déjà vu about it: the last time a Lions coach brought a bumper sized squad on tour it was to New Zealand, with Clive Woodward in 2005, and now as then it had 11 Irishmen in the original selection.

There is every chance that number will swell before the tour leaves, never mind when the casualties start to mount as the murderous schedule unfolds.

Take Jamie Heaslip for example. Like Rob Kearney an operation took him out of the running for the original squad, but unlike the full back he might yet make some of Leinster’s Guinness Pro 12 run-in. Casualties in the Lions back row will be numerous. His summer plans are by no means certain. And neither should those of the Ryans, Donnacha and John, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and backs Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Garry Ringrose.

Of the Ireland contingent in the current mix however Jared Payne is the gold medal winner. His talent and versatility were key in getting his name on the squad list. As was his fractured season. It’s hard to put a value on freshness heading on an expedition like this, so if Payne stays fit for the run-in to the northern hemisphere campaign he should be flying when he hits the ground in the south.

The ability to shift around a bit has stood to his teammate Iain Henderson too. The competition for second and back rows – uniquely for the former this time around – has been intense, so he should be thrilled to have made the cut. You look at an operator like the overlooked Joe Launchbury, shortlisted for the Six Nations Player of the Tournament award, and appreciate the quality of contestants.

Otherwise Ireland’s representatives all went to the start line with compelling cases. And all of them will travel with Test rugby as their goal. For Rory Best it would be fitting if this one works out. You wonder if Warren Gatland passed over the attraction of having a battler like Dylan Hartley in his squad for fear of the provocation he would endure.

You have to sample a bit of life on a Lions tour in New Zealand to appreciate the degree to which Kiwis circle the wagons, and start firing without warning. Even allowing for the rugby fanaticism of South Africa it is a unique experience, one where every man, woman and child seems mobilised in the fight.

For the likes of Ross Moriarty, whose physicality will have appealed to Gatland, this will all be different, notwithstanding his three Tests in New Zealand with Wales last summer. Between his playing style and lack of experience he will become a target. So too will Stuart Hogg. With four times as many Test starts he may be at the other end of the spectrum to Moriarty, but as  one of only Scots on board he will be a novelty act – imagine the tedium of the press conferences – and as a struggler under the high ball he will be on the radar of every Kiwi who laces a boot. And we will all tune in.

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