As is usually the case in a Lions summer, but perhaps even more so this year, the 37-man Irish squad named for next month’s Tests against Japan and the USA at the Aviva Stadium looks particularly fresh and experimental.
"First and foremost it's an exciting squad," declared Andy Farrell, and it hard to dispute this claim, in stating that his and the coaches' intention is to further develop their game and their strength in depth ahead of three more Tests in the autumn including the All Blacks and Argentina, the 2022 Six Nations and next summer's planned three Test tour to New Zealand.
“We’ve got a massive international calendar next year and we want to give people an opportunity to grab hold of a couple of weeks at the end of the season against a great side in Japan and USA. That’s going to be challenging for many newcomers.
“It’s exciting for lads who have been there and done that and who will step into a more senior role, hopefully, and see how they develop there. It’s nice to see some lads back who have been out of the system internationally for quite some time and it’s even nicer to see young lads or new lads come into the camp for the first time,” said Farrell in reference to the 11 uncapped players.
This compares to eight in the 31-man squad chosen to tour Japan and the USA four summers ago, namely the Ulster trio of Robert Baloucoune, Tom O'Toole and Nick Timoney, the Connacht trio of Caolin Blade, Tom Daly and Paul Boyle, the Leinster trio of Peter Dooley, Ross Molony and Harry Byrne, and the Munster duo of Gavin Coombes and Fineen Wycherley. James Ryan will captain the side.
As well as Ireland's eight Lions, including the injured Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher, who has been called into the Lions' training camp in Jersey this week, the injured James Lowe, Will Connors and Rhys Ruddock are further absentees from the Six Nations, as are the departing Quinn Roux and the retiring CJ Stander.
Eric O'Sullivan (shoulder), Gavin Thornbury (shoulder) and John Cooney (neck) were others ruled out of consideration.
Farrell and his assistants have also rested the experienced trio of Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Keith Earls, so in addition to the uncapped 11, there are recalls for Will Addison, Joey Carbery, Finlay Bealham, John Ryan and Caelan Doris, originally picked in January but forced to miss the entirety of the tournament.
There is no drama over the decision to rest Sexton, Healy and Earls, rather they were “very easy” discussions “because there is a plan behind it and the reason for that is it gives opportunities to other lads”.
“These lads understand that and hopefully agree with that and for them to have a proper rest and on top of that come back and have a proper pre-season where they can make gains with their body and come back into the start of next season with the fire burning rapidly is going to benefit us all in the long term.
“Just to add context to that, for the lads who play with us and for the Lions lads, that means that they will start their pre-season a lot later than others. For Johnny, Cian, Keith and a few other lads as well they will now probably get eight or nine weeks of a pre-season which they can probably make gains with while other lads might get four or five. So there is a reason behind that.”
Farrell also said he had been in discussion with Warren Gatland and that all three remain on the latter’s radar should they be required as late call-ups.
“These lads are aware of the situation. They will be training in the background and keeping themselves fit and Warren knows exactly what they are about.”
Carbery's recall, having last played for Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by New Zealand in Tokyo, and Harry Byrne's call-up means there is no place for his older brother Ross, as Billy Burns is the third outhalf.
“It’s bringing people back into the fold and seizing their opportunity,” said Farrell. “Joey has been out of the system for quite some time and you don’t get many windows like this one to give people time. We all know that at international level we need to find out, especially in those halfback positions, whether a player can come in and run the ship straight from the word go.
“Joey has been playing really well and his last game was his best. Harry has been injured quite a bit during the season but he is back to fitness now and we have been wanting to give him some time and exposure and this is the right time to do that.
"As far as Ross is concerned, I suppose he is in the same boat as Jack Carty or Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion, etc. Those guys have been in and done great jobs for us in the past and they will take a rest, albeit on standby to come back in, and they will be in line to come back in next year."
Ireland will host Japan on Saturday, July 3rd at 1pm and the USA on Saturday, July 10th at 7.15pm. A limited number of spectators, yet to be specified, will be able to attend the two games which will be broadcast on both RTÉ and Channel 4.
As for his own potential involvement in the Lions’ Test series after Ireland’s games, Farrell said: “I’ve spoken to Warren a couple of times and I’m more than happy, obviously, to help out because it’s an unbelievable honour to be involved in the Lions. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to watching the series.
“Where it stands at this moment in time is that Warren has left a spot open there and he wants to see how the workload goes in the first week or so of the camps. If he needs any help in and around all of that, I’m happy to help.
“The experience that they’ve got there in the coaching staff is top class and the experience they’ve got in the management group is top class as well, so I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Will Addison (Ulster, 4 caps)
Robert Baloucoune (Ulster, uncapped)
Caolin Blade (Connacht, uncapped)
Billy Burns (Ulster, 6)
Harry Byrne (Leinster, uncapped)
Joey Carbery (Munster, 22)
Craig Casey (Munster, 1)
Andrew Conway (Munster, 24)
Shane Daly (Munster, 1)
Tom Daly (Connacht, uncapped)
Chris Farrell (Munster, 14)
Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster, 9)
Hugo Keenan (Leinster, 11)
Jordan Larmour (Leinster, 29)
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster, 4)
Garry Ringrose (Leinster, 34)
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster, 34)
Ryan Baird (Leinster, 3)
Finlay Bealham (Connacht, 14)
Paul Boyle (Connacht, uncapped)
Ed Byrne (Leinster, 4)
Gavin Coombes (Munster, uncapped)
Ultan Dillane (Connacht, 18)
Peter Dooley (Leinster, uncapped)
Caelan Doris (Leinster, 7)
Dave Heffernan (Connacht, 5)
Rob Herring (Ulster, 21)
Rónan Kelleher (Leinster, 11)
Dave Kilcoyne (Munster, 43)
Ross Molony (Leinster, uncapped)
Peter O'Mahony (Munster, 75 )
Tom O'Toole (Ulster, uncapped)
James Ryan (Leinster, 35) (capt)
John Ryan (Munster, 23)
Nick Timoney (Ulster, uncapped)
Josh van der Flier (Leinster, 31)
Fineen Wycherley (Munster, uncapped)
Saturday, July 3rd: v Japan, Aviva Stadium, 1.0
Saturday, July 10th: v USA, Aviva Stadium, 7.15pm
Matches to be shown live on RTÉ & Channel 4