Sunday 21 January 2018

Earls in flying form if Lions ticket arrives

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: PA
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The speculation in these parts for the last couple of days was whether or not a 12-hour flight from Tokyo, and a three-hour time difference, was too high a price for Warren Gatland's shopping list of reinforcements. For if it was a close call then Keith Earls would have had one foot on the plane and one cheek on the bench for the Lions against the Chiefs on Tuesday.

One slight impediment however was that Gatland wasn't looking for a back-three player. There are a few weeks to go yet in New Zealand. And if a vacancy comes up in that department then Earls, now an Irish record holder for most international tries in a season with nine, is a shoo-in.

"It's not for me to anticipate others' selections," Joe Schmidt said after yesterday's seven-try demolition of Japan, which brings to 16 the number of touchdowns in the last eight days.

"We keep it very Ireland-focused. I know Earlsy is incredibly proud every time he plays for Ireland. That's incredibly apparent about the way he goes about his work. We saw it last week; we saw it today. He's in great form."

Given that strike rate he might be better off heading to the antipodes instead of home next Sunday, just in case his number is dialled. Garry Ringrose could join him. So indeed could Jack Conan, who will leave Leinster in the happy position next season of not having to rely on Jamie Heaslip.

"The selection protocol is entirely up to them," Schmidt said of the Lions. "Some of our players, based on their performances, were probably close right back at the original selection. The ones that are fit have come away on tour with us and have been phenomenal.

"They've been super for us. I hope they still have a chance. You don't wish ill on anybody, but if someone picks up an injury they could still get called in."

Given Ireland's superiority in Shizuoka's Ecopa Stadium over a desperately disappointing Japan surely Schmidt would happily wave them off if the call came ahead of Saturday's second Test against Japan - and third of the trip - in Tokyo.

His side are tipping away and adding new caps as they go. Rory O'Loughlin and Kieran Treadwell have just joined last week's band that comprised Jacob Stockwell, James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Dave Heffernan and Rory Scannell. Only the Ulster-bound John Cooney is uncapped in the party out here.

As a contest, this was a let-down. With temperatures only in the early 20s and low humidity, Ireland coped well with the conditions, and with what Japan had to offer. It had better amount to more next week or the buzz they had hoped for in building towards the World Cup will have to wait.

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