Less than Fourteen, More than Two

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as recalitrant MPs under the illusion they matter). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When it’s a Lions year, you’ll always have the people who see every game as a Lions audition – doesn’t matter who wins, they say, it’s who put their hand up. Everything is seen through the prism of Gatty’s beady eyes – it’s like that scene in Moneyball, where Brad Pitt has a massive magnetic board with players names on it – you can envisage Lions Man moving the magnetic strip with ‘Stuart Hogg’ on it from the ‘Possibles’ column into ‘Probables’ – James O’Connor couldn’t cope with his pace, he’ll murmur.

Lions Man isn’t prone to rational thinking either – it’s only the last performance that matters, forget everything that went before. Jamie Heaslip’s Lions experience is irrelevant, sure he couldn’t prevent Ireland losing in Murrayfield, he’ll say, as he throws Heaslip’s magnetic strip on to the floor, where it languishes with ‘Ronan O’Gara’ and ‘Lesley Vainikolo’.

So how will Lions Man be feeling about the Irish prospects right now? Typically, the Irish slay each other with an orgy of inter-provincial bickering, but put up an impregnable, united front against the Brits (of all hues) when it comes to Lions selections. You’ll have Blackrock College’s finest simultaneously derisively referring to Conor Murray as the poor man’s Isaac Boss when referencing his selection for Ireland, while extolling his similarities to Fourie du Preez when he’s up against Ben Youngs for a seat in Qantas business class.

The last Lions tour was an odd experience for us Irish, for when Geech picked every able-limbed Irishman (and a few others as well) to tour the highveldt, we had nothing to moan about. All we could do was sagely agree with leaving Tom Croft at home while laughing at the depth of Stephen Jones’ indignation that one of his favoured few was staying at home (initially anyway).

But this time it’s going to be different – Ireland are heading to a wooden spoon playoff in the Six Nations, the provinces are struggling to maintain the high standards they have set for themselves in Europe this season, and likely tourists are getting crocked at very inconvenient times. We should steel ourselves for righteous anger – it will be nothing like the 14 tourists of 2009, in fact a number as low as three is a possibility.

As there are only a handful of relevant games left for Irish players to make an impression (two more rounds of the Six Nations, plus the HEC knock-out stages), who is set fair for to star in montages featuring a slim Jeremy Guscott dropping goals, and who can safely book that trip to Vegas?

On the Plane:

Sean O’Brien: Ireland’s best player in their first three games, O’Brien has come back from injury as good as he ever was – he’s Ireland’s best carrier, their most prolific tackler and their only reliable weapon. The farm will be on its own for June.

Johnny Sexton: unless Sexton doesn’t recover from injury, he has enough credit banked. Owen Farrell is his only serious rival for the Test shirt.

Brian O’Driscoll: the only question around the former Lions captain is whether he will be current Lions captain. Once he came back looking so lean and driven, his slot was assured.

One Last Push:

DJ Church: Cian Healy’s suspension could not have been more badly timed – he has been the standout loose-head this season, but Joe Marler, Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Grant are having useful series, and Paul James and Maku Vunipola might come into the reckoning – three are likely to go, but it’s a scrap Healy wasn’t expecting.

Rory Best: the lineout has mis-fired disastrously. Best’s work at the breakdown is feverish – he’s Ireland’s best groundhog – and his scrummaging could be useful against an average Wallaby front row, but he’s only on the plane by default right now – step up required

Depends on Gatty’s Mood:

Jamie Heaslip: tends towards less visibility in a green shirt than a blue one due to the differing requirements of his role. Has a lot on his plate at the moment with captaincy, and hasn’t been concentrating on himself. Might pay when it comes to Lions selection.

Donnacha Ryan: has grown into one of Ireland’s leaders despite being first choice for less than a year. Needs more visibility and physicality, and a prominent performance in the Stoop in April will help, but Gatty has a plethora of options here – if he likes Ryan, he’s in; if he likes the others, he’s out.

Mike Ross: Ireland’s scrum feels solid right now, and that’s down to Ross. Not as destructive as some, but he’s a technician and the Wallaby props aren’t. Again, this one will come down to Gatty’s personal preference.

Conor Murray: Murray is an excellent young player, and is improving all the time. His box-kicking is still average, but his threat around the flanks give his fly-half time to play. Both English scrummies are likely tourists, and Murray might be playing off against Mike Phillips for a ticket.

Struggling For Air:

Rob Kearney: we never thought we’d say this, but Kearney is in Lions contention on reputation only. He’s been rather fallible on his return, and on form is behind Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Alex Goode, and even full back-cum-wing Mike Brown. Kearney needs to turn it around fast.

Tommy Bowe: Bowe looked the complete wing before he crocked himself, but he might not play a high-profile game before the tour, having already ruled himself out of Ulster’s HEC quarter final. If he does go, it’s on experience only.

Potential Bolters:

Iain Henderson: NWJMB is one injury away from starting for Ireland. He’s exciting, versatile and has bags of potential. Gatty isn’t shy about throwing youngsters in – if Hendy gets himself noticed, don’t rule it out.

Craig Gilroy: Gilroy is in the dubious position of being written into the Lions squad by none other than Stephen Jones. Jones might be an idiot, but he’s an influential one, so if Gilroy has another stellar performance, he’s a possible.

See You in Vegas:

Stephen Ferris: on his day, Fez is unplayable – an absolute monster with no natural peers in this Hemisphere. Problem is, that destructiveness works both ways. With no return date yet, another Lions tour is unlikely.

Paul O’Connell: captain last time around, O’Connell won’t be touring if he isn’t playing. And he isn’t playing. Second row is a crowded space, and there is no need for Gatty to return to an increasingly injury-prone player, no matter how good he was at his peak.

Advertisements

31 Comments

  1. BOD won’t be on the plane. He’s been fairly poor since his return from injury. Tuilagi is playing better and Gatland will probably go with Davies instead.

    Healy will walk into the squad.

  2. Simon Farrell (@SFarrell_5)

     /  March 1, 2013

    Lack of Zebo in the mix here lads. I would have thought he’d be in either ‘Depends on Gatty’s mood’ or ‘Bolters’. Obviously injury isn’t doing him any favours but I’d see him as similar to Earls in ’09 (albeit more advanced on the international front). One of him or Gilroy perhaps? I think the harder tracks down south would suit him and he offers something a bit different to the Welsh wing monsters.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  March 1, 2013

      There are tons of players who can do what Zebo does, he offers nothing out of the ordinary to warrant a place. For example Wade, Monye, Ojo, Varndell all offer more pace and the same basic skillset, their kicking mightn’t be as good, but I dont think kicking the ball to the Aus back three is a bright idea. Then there’s the big Welsh boys and the likes of Sharples, Maitland and FB’s like Mike Brown who can cover the wing. Unless he starts banging in tries in the HC I cant see him getting a place.

      • solidalarry

         /  March 1, 2013

        Zebo is a super player, has taken to test rugby like he owns the field. Monye? Come off it. **Sharples, Varndell and Ojo?**

        I don’t think he’ll go. But I think it’s the injury that’s stopped him, not lack of ability. Gilroy won’t go either.

      • Zebo was certainly in the mix, very unfortunate with the timing of his injury, which I think probably scuppers him.

        Leinsterlion, it won’t kill you to be a tiny bit positive about a player who players for one of the other provinces, which do exist apparently. We might have said the same about Zebo 12 months ago, but the extent to which his footballing ability has improved has been exceptional. He’s tremenjus. His ability to bang in tries in the HC is unquestioned at this stage. Two hat tricks already, is it?

      • Leinsterlion

         /  March 1, 2013

        Tom Varndell is on fire, no one is clamouring for him to nab a Lions spot let alone an England spot. His record is far superior to any wing in Europe.
        As for Zebo Two hattricks? one hatrick against racing in the last pool game and one try at the start when they couldnt be bothered. We have a tendency to overrate players. Zebo is a good player, but imo hes in the same class as Monye, Varndell and Wade. Maitlands just as quick but is a far more rounded ball player. Zebo is hardly the Rokcoko of 03-07. Hes talented but has a long way to go. I dont think hes Lions standard. He doesnt have the footwork or the work rate of Gilroy.He has the same strike rate of Fionn Carr at Leinster, who is regarded very lightly by everyone(not that i’m suggesting Carr is his equal, as hes not), people need to stop the hype.
        I think on current form SOB and Healy are the only locked on Lions starters. Heaslip, Best, Sexton and Drico will probably tour on past reputation.
        I think a bit of realism about the standard of Irish players performances is needed, RK wont tour unless he has a massive Amlin Pro 12 campaign, he has been dire by his standards. The Irish Locks arent powerful enough to warrent inclusion over the English and Gray. Hendo hasnt played enough lock to considered and hes way behind SOB as a 6, Gatty wont bring two Irish 6’s and leave out Wood or Robshaw and I’d say hes banking on Lydiate regaining fitness. Even Haskalls limited power game offers more then Hendo at this stage.
        The Provinces are the only hope for boosting our Lions contingent. Irish attacking play has been terrible and Argentina and 40 mins against Wales are hardly proof we should have more than two Lions starters. We will struggle to get six on the plane on current form.

      • Peat

         /  March 3, 2013

        I’m English and can’t stop laughing at this. If only he were right, I wouldn’t have to put up with Ashton…

  3. James Logan

     /  March 1, 2013

    Lads please stop with this NWJMB thing it is not funny.

    And he wasn’t even starting for Ulster in some Heineken Cup games this season, loads of sixes ahead of him and tonnes of second rows as well. Lawes, Launchbury, R Jones all ahead off him in the in second rows/ back rows as well.

    • It’s just a bit of fun, a wry ‘how much can we hype a fellow up’ reference. He’s going to be really, really good, but the tour comes 12 months too soon for him by our reckoning.

      • DaveF

         /  March 1, 2013

        I think the NWJMB thing is gas. Nicknames are great fun. If anything, we just need more skrela references on the blog;). Do you reckon Irish Post readers will get the NWJMB references?…same applies to “DJ Church” – makes me laugh either way.

        James Logan – you might need to get used to the nicknames – in a few years it could get worse for you when GT starts referring to him as “some bloke named Iain”

  4. Rava

     /  March 1, 2013

    I think anyone who won’t play again this season (Zebo, Ferris, Bowe (poss) and P Wallace 🙂 ) won’t even be considered for selection.

  5. I think Kearney will make the plane, whether he makes the test team is another matter. I really can’t see WG not taking DJ, injuries aside his tackle count and ball carrying stats for both Leinster and Ireland are impressive. If Best has another day at the office like he did against Scotland then he could be in trouble. Agree with Simon, Zebo should be in the mix, always a wild card pick in the Lions party.

    • Wings, more than any position, get picked on form. Zebo’s injury probably takes him out of the equation, which must be very frustrating, because he was flying. The wings are ‘open season’ as far as we’re concerned because Alex Cuthbert and Chris Ashton have been pretty close to useless this series.

      • Basil Brush

         /  March 1, 2013

        “close to useless” may be slightly generous

  6. L.P.O.

     /  March 1, 2013

    Injuries are costing us, clearly, as Bowe and Fez (especially sad for him) would have been test starters for me, plus O’Connell, form permitting, was in with a great shout. Healy hasn’t helped his case, but remains the top loosie, so he should start. Ross, while being the one player Ireland can not play without, is maybe 3rd in the pecking order I’d guess, so has a chance. The only thing counting against Bestie, who has been in top form, is the throwing… he’ll take all the blame (rather unfairly) for the line-out disaster in Murrayfield, so he needs to shine again for Ulster and Ireland. Heaslip will miss out (perhaps due more to issues beyond his control). As it stands Kearney is out too, amazingly. Had him nailed-on to start. Agree with your bolters (keep the NWJMB up lads, it’s tradition) and your certainties. I fear Sexton will probably be behind Farrell (without justification), and has perhaps one big game left in which to impress… If the English do get the Slam they will be at the heights of unbearability… and their media will have a new darling. Just have to hope that Gatland can look past that and continue to be an excellent selector of players. Big call. O’Brien should start, but not at open-side. Perhaps being removed of his duty to captain us on this doomed campaign could even help O’Driscoll’s tilt at captaining the tourists? I think he’ll take 7, starting 3 of them… (at present I’d optimistically take 8 and start 4) and we can count ourselves lucky if he gets close to that. Bah.

    • The clarion call for a team of twenty-five English lions (all the matchday 23, plus Steffon Armitage and Johnny Wilkinson) will indeed be unbearable should England win a grand slam, so get out your Welsh flags a fortnight hence!

      As we mentioned in the piece, reputation counts as well as form, so guys like Heaslip and Kearney (and maybe even Paul O’Connell, who knows) who have experience of the tour probably have a good chance of making it, even if their form is a bit iffy. Both have a fairly ‘midweek’ look about them at the moment, though.

  7. Mary Hinge

     /  March 1, 2013

    Bolter could be Robbie Henshaw, who’ll start against Italy and score a few tries after yet another uninspiring performance by Rob K against the French………………….
    Healy, Best, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, O’Driscoll, and Bowe will tour.

    • Xyz

       /  March 1, 2013

      Saw something about this from Foley on Twitter but can’t see it on the website (and don’t live in Ireland). Anyone else running with this Henshaw as bolter for the game against Italy? I usually doubt that Kidney can think beyond the first half of the next game never mind a game in advance.

      • toro toro

         /  March 1, 2013

        That’s not fair. Deccie is always looking forward to at least the 50 minute mark, when he can bring RADGE!!! on.

  8. solidalarry

     /  March 1, 2013

    I think Healy and Best are as certain as the three listed above them. Otherwise, the lack of Zebo aside, I think you’re on the money.

    If Luke Marshall is amazing in the next two games he could bolt, but that says more about the choices at 12 (where Billy Twelvetrees is already an option after one start) than anything else.

    I agree that Kearney’s stock has fallen (to be honest, Hogg will bury them all, what a player – he’d be my choice, no question) but he’s not playing badly. Alex Goode has had an OK championship, but looks shaky at the aul tackling, while Halfpenny is extremely solid but unspectacular and struggles to change direction without falling over. Rob came into the line well at the weekend, including making the break that led to the try. He’s been quieter than normal without being bad. Still, Hogg’s shirt IMO, the rest are injury cover (and I know he’s young and this could go wrong, but I don’t want to be proved incorrect, an in-form and firing SH would be worth the early starts on their own).

    • Amiga500

       /  March 1, 2013

      You get the feeling if Jared Payne were Irish qualified by now – he’d be a nailed on cert for the 15 jersey.

      [Not that I totally agree with players qualified via residency being on the B&I Lions]

      • therealspratt

         /  March 1, 2013

        He’s still 2 years or so off isn’t he? Hope we can keep him around for that long, top player, can’t wait to have him back on the pitch

  9. What does NWJMB mean!!

  10. Peat

     /  March 3, 2013

    When I first heard Ferris was injured, I nearly went down the bookies and got a bet on NWJMB going on the Lions tour. Then, while I uhm’ed and aah’ed, the locking crisis at Ulster developed and after one game I shelved the idea. If he’d had the season at blindside, I think he’d have made it. As it is, seems a long shot… would love it though, he’s got the talent but is being denied the stage.

    • Sam

       /  March 3, 2013

      Has Henderson not spent the majority of the season at 6 though? In my opinion he’s had more than enough time there for everyone to see just how good he is in that position. Not being favoured over O’Mahony for Ireland is what would hinder his chances as a bolter, I don’t think a few more games at 6 for Ulster would have swayed Kidney either, but who knows.

      • Peat

         /  March 3, 2013

        Not so much the number of the games – which were less than I thought on recount – but the timing of them. Of the last three HEC group games, he played two at lock, then lost his place in the first team off of the back of those and Diack’s good form and was on the bench for Castres. Think he needed those games in his best position to state his case.

    • Sam

       /  March 4, 2013

      I’m pretty sure he didn’t start in Castres because Ulster needed someone experienced to call the lineout with both Tuohy and Muller injured (not that it helped that day). He ended up playing the majority of the match though with Wilson getting injured early on… but point taken. Maybe Kidney might surprise us further and decide to start him for the France game… one can hope!

  11. Rogocoko

     /  March 3, 2013

    Lukey Fitz anyone???

  12. Rich

     /  March 3, 2013

    Reading this – so many have played their way off the plane. Leinsters slide has clearly contributed, apart from Healy and SOB none of them have any form at all, that coupled with Munsters poor attempts to play a slightly advanced game has left Ireland- and thus our Lions hopes, in a sorry state.

    I m expecting Gatland to select a fair number of Ulster players, as he will not be looking at selections with any provincial bias, players like L Marshall, Cave, P Marshall could give themselves a good chance with a strong finish – i totally agree that although Hendo is a talent he needs to be starting every week – which he is not.

    England will dominate selection – as much as it pains to say it, they stepped it up against us and France, and deserve the credit, They have brought in a young, respected coach, with fresh ideas, given him the best defense coach, attack and scrummage coaches available. Ireland have let their players down by standing by a poor coach who has steadliy made an exciting team into potential wooden spooners – shame for players but our hierachy need to learn from these huge errors in judgement – as now we have no nailed on starters for the Lions, centres will be roberts and tuilagi, farrell will be 10, ata push SOB might get a game at 6 but wood and tipuric look solid – so not much for us to cheer on test days it would seem…….

%d bloggers like this: