Farrell’s absence from Lions coaching ticket proves costly for some Irish contenders

Opportunity will knock for several prospects on home front as Lions head for South Africa

There can be little doubt that the lack of a voice from the Irish coaching ticket, and specifically Andy Farrell, didn't help the chances of one or two more Irish players in making the Lions squad.

It's certainly hard not to think that Farrell might have made a persuasive case for one or more of Johnny Sexton, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, all of whom were overlooked in preference to players who have achieved considerably less in their careers and even have less form this season.

It will have been a disheartening few days for others too, such as Cian Healy and CJ Stander, who would surely have dreamt of signing off his rugby playing career with a second Lions tour, and in his homeland. But few players are permitted to pen their own fairytale final chapter.

Of course there is plenty of rugby to be played between now and the Lions squad’s proposed departure after their warm-up game against Japan on June 26th, not least in the Premiership and the Rainbow Cup, and thus – sadly for some – every likelihood of changes to the 37-man squad.

Now that plans for Ireland’s proposed three-Test tour to Fiji, which always seemed a long shot, have been shelved, Farrell’s unavailability for the Lions seems even more questionable. Against that, Farrell has more responsibilities now as Irish head coach than as defence coach four years ago and, what’s more, he and Ireland missed out on a summer tour last year to Australia.

Nor did Joe Schmidt accept Warren Gatland's invitation four years ago when taking an Irish squad without 11 Lions on a three-Test tour to the USA and Japan.

Furthermore, instead of the Fijian tour, the IRFU are very close to signing off on two home Tests this summer, against Ireland’s conquerors in the World Cup, Japan, and the USA, on July 3rd and 10th, at an empty Aviva Stadium.

Both countries will have squads in these shores and are keen for more games, as are World Rugby. Both are decidedly ring-rusty, but Japan will have played the Lions a week previously in Murrayfield, while the Eagles are in line to play England at Twickenham a week before meeting Ireland.

Given Wales’ tour to Argentina and Uruguay also appears to have been shelved, along with Italy’s trek to New Zealand and France’s tour to Australia, the likes of Japan, USA and Canada could find themselves further in demand.

Home Tests behind closed doors against Japan, 10th in the world rankings, and the Eagles (16th) won’t be as exacting or hence as informative as a three-Test tour to Fiji (11th) would have been given the different dynamics of touring far from home and the strength of the Pacific Islanders.

Indian summer

Previously Covid-free prior to the unfortunate outbreak of the virus in recent weeks in Fiji, there was also the distinct possibility of boisterous capacity crowds of about 15,000 at each of those three Tests in Suva.

Augment that with opposition including players of the calibre of Sam Matevesi, Levani Botia, Semi Radrada and Nemani Nadolo, and it would probably have been as tough a three-Test summer tour as possible against a Tier 2 country right now.

Still, there will be merit to the Tests against Japan and the USA, and Farrell’s involvement, in further seeking to develop both Ireland’s game and strength in depth.

While Sexton will be devastated to miss out on a third Lions trip, missing out may ultimately benefit Ireland in the Indian summer of his career. There might also be the consolation of winning his 100th cap for Ireland in either of those games against Japan or the USA while affording Farrell and Mike Catt the opportunity to welcome back Joey Carbery and perhaps have a look at the uncapped Harry Byrne.

Conor Murray's third Lions tour ought also to mean more game time for Craig Casey, with further options plentiful in Jamison Gibson-Park, Luke McGrath and John Cooney.

The inclusion of both Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw in the Lions squad will afford more scope to look at Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey, and possibly James Hume or Stewart Moore too. Although no Irish outside backs have been included in the Lions squad, this appears like a tailor-made opportunity to blood Robert Baloucoune as well.

Farrell and co will be particularly compelled to further examine the options at tighthead given the inclusion of Andrew Porter as well as Tadhg Furlong on the plane to South Africa. John Ryan and Marty Moore are probably the next best scrummaging tightheads, but the investment in Tom O'Toole, previously part of Irish training camps, is liable to be increased.

In the absence of Iain Henderson, there are other experienced options in the second row in addition to Ryan, but Ryan Baird is sure to be further exposed, with scope also for perhaps looking at Gavin Thornbury and/or Fineen Wycherley.

Opens doors

The Lions involvement of Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan, along with the impending retirement of Stander, also opens doors among the loose forwards, affording a real opportunity to perhaps reward Gavin Coombes and/or Nick Timoney for their fine form this season. Mind you, it would also be good to see Caelan Doris back in an Irish jersey as well.

Four summers ago, eight players were blooded at international level, namely Porter, Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Cooney, Dave Heffernan, Rory O'Loughlin, Rory Scannell and Kieran Treadwell. There were another 14 whose number of caps was in single figures, including Conan, Andrew Conway, Carbery, Dan Leavy, Ringrose and Josh van der Flier.

These two Tests in July might not offer quite the same scope to delve so deeply into Ireland’s reservoir of talent but they’ll certainly be better than nothing.

As all of the aforementioned candidates, and more, will be monitored more closely over the coming weeks, heck, this might even engender a bit more life and meaning into the Rainbow Cup!

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times