This was Ireland’s smallest Lions contingent for some time yet those who travelled made an impact in South Africa.
The eight Irish tourists will have plenty to reflect on as they take their belated summer break over the next few weeks, with some heartbroken by a series defeat that seemed within their grasp and others frustrated by a lack of opportunity.
They’ve been in a bubble for so long that the very taste of freedom will help cleanse the palate of disappointment and they can all take solace from the fact they contributed to a unique, if unsuccessful adventure.
Leading Man: Robbie Henshaw
(Played 5, started all three Tests)
Henshaw returns home with his reputation firmly enhanced after a string of high-end performances in the Lions’ midfield.
A contender for the tourists’ player of the series, the Athlone native carried the fight to the Springboks from first minute to last and, had they managed to engineer a famous last-gasp win, his brilliant chase of Finn Russell’s final restart would have been talked about for a long time.
Despite an ill-timed hamstring injury during the early stages of the tour, the 28-year-old started the first two Tests at inside centre before moving to No 13 in the decider, he was inches away from a key try in the second game and was responsible for so many of their better moments.
That the Lions didn’t manage a try from their backs wasn’t a reflection of his efforts, Henshaw was truly unlucky to have finished on the losing side.
The Bolter: Jack Conan
(Played 7, started all three Tests)
The surprise package of the tour, Conan took the opportunities Warren Gatland afforded him with both hands and earned the trust of the coaches.
His durability was on evidence during the warm-up games and he only missed the win over the Lions and defeat to South Africa ‘A’ match which may have been a blessing in disguise.
Most expected Taulupe Faletau to start at No 8, but Conan’s form edged that selection battle and despite calls for change that lazily ignored the Bray native’s contribution, the Kiwi coach held firm.
Perhaps his performances dipped between Tests one and two, he was excellent in the decider and can hold his head up high as a three-Test Lion in a pivotal role.
Class apart: Tadhg Furlong
(Played 7, started all three Tests)
Has now started six Lions Tests in a row and you’d hope he’ll be fit and well enough to come back and win a series in Australia in four years’ time.
There was no doubting his status as a world-leading tighthead going over and the Lions lacked front-row options of a similar calibre at key stages.
Furlong may not have got the chance to add to high stunning highlights reel in the loose, but that’s the reality of life against the Springboks.
Against the best scrummaging pack in the world, he more than held his own and he was relentlessly aggressive throughout.
Captain, my Captain?: Conor Murray
(Played 6, started one Test, came off bench in two)
What a weird tour for the Limerick man who was not helped by the circus surrounding the captaincy.
Murray never asked to lead the Lions, but having had the honour and responsibility bestowed on him he then wasn’t given a chance to play and by the time Alun Wyn Jones returned he was in danger of losing the No 9 shirt.
So, the rug was fully pulled from under him and he landed on the bench for the first Test. He came off it to lead the team home in a fine first-half performance that earned him a start in the second Test but that didn’t go to plan.
Again, he looked to make a big impact on the decider and Andy Farrell will note his calm assurance when introduced against a tiring team.
Still, as a three-tour veteran this wasn’t how he wanted it to go.
The Squad Man: Bundee Aki
(Played 6, started one Test)
Justified his surprise selection with some strong early performances, but an under-par display against South Africa ‘A’ undermined his case and he found himself on the outside watching on for the first two Tests.
How he responded defined his tour. Aki rowed in behind the starters, bringing energy on and off the training-ground and acting as a one man crowd at the Cape Town Stadium.
Gatland decided to recall him for the decider and, while it wasn’t perfect, his display suggested that the Lions may have been better served by pairing Aki and Henshaw for the series.
What might have been: Tadhg Beirne
(Played 6, came off bench in two Tests)
There’s an alternative universe where the Kildare native returns a hero after starting all three Tests, but Beirne must come to terms with the fact that his tour lost momentum the longer it went on.
Impressive every time he played, he narrowly lost out on Test selection to Courtney Lawes and when the England flanker had a stormer the door began to close. Beirne did little wrong in the two short substitute appearances he made in the first and second Tests, but was jettisoned for the decider as Gatland shook his bench up.
His experience will be all the more frustrating because he barely put a foot wrong.
Frustration personified: Iain Henderson
(Played 4, no Test appearance)
A big victim of captain Alun Wyn Jones’ return from injury and the South Africa ‘A’ under-performance, the Ulster captain has now been on two Lions tours without getting beyond the dirt-trackers.
Gatland simply never seemed convinced that the Ireland star, who had a fantastic Six Nations, was the right man for the job.
Farrell will hope he returns to a green jersey with a point to prove.
One for the future: Rónan Kelleher
Kelleher will be 27 when the Australia tour rolls around and after starring for Ireland in the summer internationals he looks primed to take the next step in his career on the back of this experience.
Called up to train with the Lions in Jersey before they departed, he was formally added to the squad midway through to act as cover for the three hookers but the lack of midweek games during the series meant he never got to wear the red jersey.
The experience should still stand to him as he looks to cement his place as Ireland’s No 2 next season.
Robbie Henshaw’s tour by numbers
Minutes played: 378
Defenders beaten: 6
Gainline breaks: 17
Metres made: 120 metres
Turnovers won: 3
Tackle success: 93.5pc