Tuesday 24 October 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Irish pride battling for form and fitness

Rory Best has a real shot at being the starting Test hooker in New Zealand. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rory Best has a real shot at being the starting Test hooker in New Zealand. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was all smiles as the Lions boarded the first of three planes on their marathon journey to New Zealand in London yesterday, but for a number of the Irish contingent there must be doubt in the minds as they consider their form and fitness at the end of a long season.

It seems unlikely that Warren Gatland would have allowed any of them to make the trip if they had major doubts, but he will have watched the end of the campaign with interest.

Sean O’Brien: Needs to answer major questions over his fitness. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien: Needs to answer major questions over his fitness. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The coach has promised to play all of his players in the first three games, beginning with Saturday's gentle opener against the Provincial Barbarians. After that introduction, the curve goes rapidly upwards and four of the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises as well as the Maori lie in wait before the All Blacks come into view.

Time is precious and it's a big squad, so those hoping to play their way into form may find their opportunities limited. Gatland must be ruthless.

Some appear to have played too much rugby, others have played too little. So, how are the 11 Irish players shaping up as they make their way to the toughest rugby country in the world?

Rory Best

Ireland's captain is perhaps best set after having a month without a game to get himself in the best shape possible at the end of a tough season with Ulster and the national team.

Determined to make up for a poor tour as a late replacement four years ago; the hooker is likely to be involved early having been in camp from the start and will likely have a key leadership role from the off.

Test match prospects: His throwing into the lineout is key to his fortunes, but he has a real shot at Test involvement given rival Ken Owens has injury concerns. 8/10

Tadhg Furlong

The favourite to start at tighthead after a sensational season, Furlong may benefit from Leinster's surprise semi-final defeat. Has played a lot of rugby for both province and country but his performance levels have rarely dipped even if his ball-carrying has not quite hit the heights of November when he was throwing All Blacks around.

Test match prospects: Almost guaranteed to start the first Test if he can keep fit and perform. 9/10

Iain Henderson

Something of an unknown proposition after a mixed season for Ulster and Ireland, for whom he fell in and out of favour.

Like Best, he's well-rested but he needs to hit the ground running with some big early displays. Fresh, so he'll likely get plenty of early involvement and if he can show form he has a Test shot - particularly on the bench given his ability to cover back-row. That form has been hard to come by though.

Test match prospects: In need of big performances from the off.5/10

Robbie Henshaw

A rib injury disrupted his end of season but may have lightened his load after a tough season. Recovered for the Scarlets defeat and couldn't be blamed for what went wrong.

The extra week in camp should stand to him and he's Gatland's type of player so if he can get some early involvement and impress then he has a real shot at the starting No 12 jersey, particularly if Owen Farrell is being seen as a No 10.

Test match prospects: Depends on how the coaches use Farrell but currently in a strong position to start. 7/10

Jack McGrath

Few players have been asked to do more over the past three seasons than McGrath, whose work-rate is undisputed.

You just hope that the number of top-level scrums, tackles, rucks and carries haven't shown in his legs. There were signs during the Six Nations that he was fading slightly, but Joe Schmidt kept the faith throughout. Has a tough job to get the No 1 shirt against Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler, but is a reliable loosehead with an All Black scalp in his back pocket.

Test match prospects: In an even battle for the loosehead slot, needs to start well. 6/10

Conor Murray

Fears he wasn't going to make it have abated and now the mission for Murray is playing his way back into form after a long lay-off due to his shoulder problem.

Two-and-a-half games with Munster will stand to him and he thrived on tour four years ago. Comes in as the favourite to wear the No 9 jersey in four weeks' time, but has work to do based on his performance in Saturday's Guinness PRO12 final defeat to Scarlets. Rival Rhys Webb is carrying an injury, however, while Ben Youngs pulled out and Greig Laidlaw is unlikely to pose a real threat.

Test match prospects: Should play his way into form and barring injury he'll start. 9/10

Sean O'Brien

A Test match starter in the decider four years ago, O'Brien commands the New Zealanders' respect and is a proven big match player.

However, his Six Nations never hit the heights he reached against the All Blacks in Dublin in November and after his stunning performance against Wasps on April 1 he hasn't been seen on the pitch since. Has a good record of coming back from injury with an impact but a bad recent record of getting injured in the first place. Can play a role, but major questions over his fitness exist.

Test match prospects: We'll only know when he gets out on the pitch and proves himself once more. Having the captain in your position doesn't help.4/10

Peter O'Mahony

Not at his best last weekend, but the memory of his destruction of England's lineout is still fresh in Gatland's mind.

A born leader, he offers much and has a real shot at glory if he can get over the weekend's disappointment and his body doesn't let him down.

Test match prospects: Billy Vunipola's injury has opened things up in the ­back-row and O'Mahony offers a lot. 6/10

Jared Payne

May well be wondering how he got here given he's featured in just five games, four in the PRO12, since November when he damaged his kidney against Australia.

A trusted member of Ireland's backline who knows the terrain and opposition well, he has a chance to play his way in but it's a tough ask. Full-back may be his best bet.

Test match prospects: Certainly capable of getting to the level but has played precious little rugby. 4/10

Johnny Sexton

Started all three Tests in Australia, but this is a very different proposition as he has two realistic rivals for the No 10 shirt.

It's unclear if Gatland trusts his ability to get through games and his performance in the PRO12 semi-final was a worry, but he remains the most talented and experienced No 10 available.

Test match prospects: Many are assuming he'll partner up with Owen Farrell in a 10-12 axis, but that's not Gatland's form. Needs to show once again how good he is. Faces a real battle. 6/10

CJ Stander

Hasn't been at his brilliant best since damaging his ankle against Toulouse in April but as Rassie Erasmus pointed out he won't be targeted quite as much as he is with Munster and Ireland given the quality around him. Billy Vunipola's injury opens a door for him, but he has to be fit and ready to take it.

Test match prospects: The No 8 jersey looks like a straight shoot-out between Stander and Gatland favourite Taulupe Faletau. 6/10

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