This summer the Ireland rugby team is scheduled to tour the Pacific Islands taking in Test matches against Tonga and Fiji. As things stand those internationals haven’t been postponed or cancelled but in the current global coronavirus pandemic the logistics of taking a roughly 45-50-strong touring party of players, coaches and medical personnel to the other side of the world is a complex venture.
Any undertaking would operate in the shadow of a Lions tour to South Africa, the parameters of which are the subject of ongoing negotiations. There is a commitment to resolving that uncertainty by the end of the month to establish if a Lions tour is feasible be it in South Africa, Australia or the northern hemisphere.
Only when that’s untangled can Ireland’s potential trip to the southern hemisphere be examined in detail. It would be a travesty from a playing perspective if Tonga and Fiji were denied an opportunity to play a Tier 1 nation in front of their supporters; unfortunately it’s a long shot.
Former Samoan international Dan Leo and his cohorts are working so hard to try and get a fair crack from a financial and playing perspective and deserve every support. Having covered the last Irish tour to the Pacific Islands in 2003 – Eddie O'Sullivan was in charge when Ireland travelled to Australia, Tonga and Samoa – holistically it was a memorable experience for most concerned.
There is also a practical, tangible benefit to Ireland touring Tier 2 nations in the same year as a Lions expedition. Since the turn of the century in the five Irish tours in the summers of 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017, 32 players made their first appearance in a green jersey.
There are a number of parameters to point out governing selection before addressing the identity of the individuals concerned. The Lions take first dibs on the best Irish players and there are also a number ruled out of a national tour because of injury. The drilling down in personnel terms goes quite a long way and as a process it rules out far more than it identifies as potential high-end international players.
In 2001, Warren Gatland led an Ireland team to Bucharest in June. It was the year of foot-and-mouth disease, and the national team ended up playing three Six Nations matches in the autumn.
Munster secondrow Mick O'Driscoll (23 Irish caps) and Leinster hooker Shane Byrne (41) made their respective debuts, the latter off the bench; Byrne's first lineout was in front of a group of friends and family who had travelled to Romania for his stag do as he was getting married six days later. Ireland won 37-3 and both debutants had fine international careers, Byrne touring with the Lions in New Zealand four years later.
In 2005 Niall O'Donovan, Michael Bradley and Mark McCall took charge of a two Test tour to Japan – Eddie O'Sullivan was an assistant coach with the Lions – during which seven players were capped for the first time. Bernard Jackman went on to win nine caps with Trevor Hogan (four), Matt McCullough (four), Kieran Campbell (three), Kieran Lewis (three), David Quinlan (two) and Roger Wilson (one) the others to make their bow on that tour.
The 2009 Irish tour to North America produced a similarly modest return in terms of cumulative caps with the exception of Harlequins, Leinster and Ireland tighthead prop Mike Ross, who started 59 of 61 appearances during a seven year international career in which he was a key player for his country.
Ulster centre Darren Cave (11) managed double digits while the only other person to exceed five is the widely travelled Dubliner Ian Keatley (seven), now with the Glasgow Warriors. In 2013 an Ireland squad returned to North America under the coaching baton of Les Kiss. In a 15-12 win over the USA in Houston the then 19-year-old Robbie Henshaw made his debut.
The Leinster centre made his 50th appearance in the victory over Italy a fortnight ago. Only Munster flanker Tommy O'Donnell (13) managed more than a handful of caps among the six debutants on that tour. The 2017 Irish odyssey to the USA and Japan struck pay dirt with Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter – they had played in the Under-20 World Cup final the previous year – coming through while John Cooney also won the first of his 11 caps to date.
The quality of the Irish 20s in recent years and a better talent identification programme should improve the throughput of players at a younger age. They key though is opportunity.
If Ireland don't tour this summer as seems certain, then players like Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Michael Lowry, Gavin Coombes, Alex Wootton, Harry Byrne, Jimmy O'Brien and Scott Penny to highlight a few will be denied a benchmarking process that has been a springboard for several predecessors; and that's a pity.