Irish Lions’ representation set to be in double figures

Entire Irish frontrow of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong likely in squad

Lions head coach Warren Gatland  is expected to announce a team comprising about 10 or 11  Irish players. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Lions head coach Warren Gatland is expected to announce a team comprising about 10 or 11 Irish players. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

Although the number of Irish players is not expected to rival the record 14 chosen in 2009, when admittedly three of them were forced out of the tour before it began, Ireland are expected to have a strong representation of about 10 or 11 when the Lions squad of 38 to tour New Zealand is announced at noon in London on Wednesday.

A final, lengthy selection meeting on Tuesday between Warren Gatland and the rest of the Lions coaching staff, which carried on from early afternoon and into the evening, suggests a few places went very much down to the wire.

In the final breakdown, despite winning three of their five games in the Six Nations for the first time since 2006, the Scots could have as few as two players in the squad, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. This will particularly irk them if, as is possible, the Welsh and Irish each have about 11 (with about 14 English players) given Scotland beat Ireland 27-22 and Wales by 29-13 at Murrayfield.

Yet the credit in the bank which Welsh and Irish players have built up on the last Lions tour to Australia and over the last four years is likely to be reflected in the squad’s make-up on Wednesday.

This particularly applies to the Welsh back three of George North and Leigh Halfpenny, huge contributors to the Test series win four years ago, and Liam Williams, outstanding on Wales’ tour of New Zealand last June.

No place for Zebo

The English pair of Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly appear set to complete the outside backs. This would mean no place for any of Simon Zebo – despite his versatility, left-footed kicking game, experience of four years ago and a personality which makes him an eminently amiable tourist – Keith Earls, Jared Payne and Rob Kearney, all of whom have their admirers in the Lions’ coaching ticket and have been considered.

Ringrose capped off a fine Six Nations by eclipsing Joseph at the Aviva in the Ireland-England game

That Rob Howley and Seve Borthwick attended Worcester’s game against Bath last Saturday adds credence to the notion that the New Zealand-born, former Leinster centre, Ben Te’o, might be a bolter. What’s more, his inclusion could come partly at the expense of Jonathan Joseph, which also enhances the prospect of Garry Ringrose being included as well as Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Davies.

Ringrose capped off a fine Six Nations by eclipsing Joseph at the Aviva in the Ireland-England game, an encounter which, no less than Ireland’s win over the All Blacks, will assuredly have an impact, a la Wales’ win over England on the final weekend four years ago. Yet the nagging suspicion that Gatland’s undoubted admiration for Jamie Roberts will see him included has been strengthened by Sky Sports reporting as much on Tuesday, which would perhaps be instead of Te’o.

Dan Biggar is favoured to accompany Johnny Sexton as the other specialist outhalf ahead of George Ford and Finn Russell, (although Russell could well increase Scotland’s representation). Along with Farrell this would give the Lions a strong hand of “10s” who have strong kicking games off the tee and out of hand, are good passers and tacklers who can also carry.

The scrumhalf trio appear to be the one cut and dried case.

Up front, it will be disappointing if the entire Irish frontrow of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong are not chosen, with Cian Healy also pushing hard if seven props are taken. Otherwise, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Dan Cole and, another surprise bolter yet to start a Test, Kyle Sinckler could complete a strong hand of English props.

Comeback

That Borthwick also attended the Northampton-Saracens game on Sunday reinforces the theory that Dylan Hartley and Jamie George are vying for the third and last slot for hookers, and that George Kruis may make the plane to Auckland after making his comeback in that game given Borthwick’s admiration for the lock’s lineout and scrummaging abilities.

Ryan would appear to have the more compelling case, given his outstanding form all season for Ireland and Munster

This could be at the expense of Joe Launchbury, despite him starting all of England’s Six Nations games, with Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Alun Wyn-Jones (if fit) also travelling. This could leave an opening for Iain Henderson and/or Donnacha Ryan, with at least one and perhaps both being named today.

Ryan would appear to have the more compelling case, given his outstanding form all season for Ireland and Munster, through the November series and the Six Nations, and notably against England. Despite a less productive season overall, Henderson’s performance against England pushed him into the mix, and the Lions’ coaches may feel they can extract that kind of performance consistently.

Billy Vunipola and Toby Faletau look like being the two specialist number eights

Sam Warburton will assuredly travel, as might Justin Tipuric, and it’s conceivable that at least two, and possibly all three Irish flankers, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Pater O’Mahony will make the cut, O’Brien having outperformed James Haskell in two Aviva showdowns, while O’Mahony has made a late charge. Billy Vunipola and Toby Faletau look like being the two specialist number eights.

Despite his recent knee injury, Warburton will be the captain.

 Possible Lions squad of 38 

Fullbacks (2): Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) 

Wings (5): Anthony Watson (England), Elliot Daly (England), George North (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Tommy Seymour (Scotland) 

Centres (5): Owen Farrell (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Garry Ringrose (Ireland) 

Outhalves (2): Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales) 

Scrumhalves (3): Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England) 

Hookers (3): Ken Owens (Wales), Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George (England) 

Props (6): Jack McGrath (Ireland), Joe Marler (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (England) 

Locks (5): Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), George Kruis (England), Donnacha Ryan (Ireland) 

Flankers (5): Sam Warburton (Wales, captain), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland) 

Number 8s (2): Billy Vunipola (England), Toby Faletau (Wales) 

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