EIGHT IRISH PLAYERS have been named by Warren Gatland in his 37-strong British and Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa this summer: Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Conor Murray, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan.
There is no Johnny Sexton or James Ryan. Also unfortunate to miss out are Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Peter O’Mahony – the captain from the first test in 2017 – CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour.
In all, there are 11 English players named, 10 Welsh, eight Scots and eight Irish. Big name English players – including Kyle Sinckler, Henry Slade, the centre, and Billy Vunipola, the No 8, missed out.
Ireland’s tally of eight is the lowest number selected to tour for the Lions since 2001. However, there is plenty of logic behind the decisions to exclude Ryan, Ringrose and Sexton – firstly because of the quality of names who got there ahead of them but also because of the mixed seasons they have had.
In Ryan’s case, his form has dipped noticeably, evident last weekend when Leinster needed him in their moment of crisis against La Rochelle. Those selected ahead of him, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes and Henderson deserve their place.
Sexton is certainly unfortunate in the sense that no kicker had a better return in the Six Nations – Sexton landing 86 per cent of his shots at goals – and that’s before we mention everything else he has to offer: a ruthless desire to win, deep tactical intelligence and defensive strength which is uncommon in most fly-halves.
The 2017 tour turned on the back of his inclusion for the second test. However, injuries have plagued him this season. In five starts for Leinster, Sexton came off hurt in four, the last of those being against Exeter in the quarter-finals, resulting in him missing Leinster’s defeat to La Rochelle last weekend. At 35, his durability must have been a concern for Gatland.
Leinster and Ireland’s Ryan misses out. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Ringrose, similarly, has seen his form dip, failing to back himself like he used to.
For others today was a good one. Aki is the big surprise given how little rugby he has played this season; Conan, too, had a series of injuries before coming late into the Six Nations campaign, where he excelled against England. That game sealed his place on the tour.
Andrew Porter is less of a surprise, although it remains a big call for a coach to name a back-up with his club on a Lions squad. Nonetheless, he merits inclusion, as does Henderson, Murray, Beirne. Henshaw and Furlong are Ireland’s likeliest starters when the Tests begin.
Alun Wyn Jones was named captain which was no surprise as Gatland had previously selected Sam Warburton to lead the side on the 2013 and 2017 tours.
“I had a call from Gats on Sunday evening; we had a quick chat and evidently it was a huge privilege to be able to add this to the CV,” said Jones, who at 35 becomes the oldest Lions captain of the modern era.
“As a rugby player you want to be involved in these challenges … the significance isn’t lost on me … it will be interesting to see how we go out there. To do that is a huge honour … that custodianship … [as players] you’re all connected, it’s something very, very special, and it’s hard to explain. I’d like to think it hasn’t changed from the times before professionalism to this very day.
“I enjoy the sport, I love what I do, and I’ll continue in a similar vein.”