Donal Lenihan: Timing is everything when it comes to the Lions tour

While James Ryan's timing couldn't have been worse, Jack Conan, who might not even be the best No 8 in Leinster, now finds himself with the hottest ticket in rugby
Donal Lenihan: Timing is everything when it comes to the Lions tour

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME: With Caelan Doris sidelined due to concerns surrounding concussion and Peter O'Mahony suspended, Jack Conan (pictured) found himself back in the selection mix with Ireland.

From here on in the focus will be on tracking the progress of the Lions, from the opening game against Japan in Murrayfield on June 26 to how the side is coming together in the weeks building up to the key opening test on July 24.

Before that, a final word on selection.

Nobody receives more advice in advance of squad selection than a Lions head coach. The anticipation and flurry of phantom squads absorbs so many column inches in advance, it comes as a blessed relief when the coaching team’s deliberations become public knowledge.

The thing those selections often fail to take into account are the specific nuances relating to the way the coaches want their charges to perform, the characteristics required to deal with the key strengths of the opposition, or even mundane things like the associated pressures of being away for so long.

As always, there are surprises, with the inclusion of Connacht’s Bundee Aki catching many on the hop. Given the strong speculation that Manu Tuilagi would be picked, despite playing no rugby this season, the fact that he was running out of time in his race for fitness should have put us on notice. 

With Tuilagi ruled out, Aki was a like for like pick. Warren Gatland has always admired the physicality his fellow Waikato native brings to the cause.

Timing is everything when it comes to making the cut for a Lions tour. James Ryan is a case in point. He burst onto the scene in 2018, a year too late for the last Lions tour, and would have been a certainty had the Lions travelled overseas in any of the last three seasons.

Events conspired to work against him this time out. Two separate concussive incidents against Wales and Scotland cost him game time at the highest level, including Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Exeter Chiefs, at the wrong time.

On his return, he struggled to find top form but was getting there. His final misfortune was that Leinster came up against a bruising La Rochelle front five in the semi-final. Ryan didn’t impose himself in that game which opened the door for Jonny Hill who didn’t do a whole lot for Exeter in that quarter-final defeat to Leinster apart from nearly getting sent off.

James Ryan is a far better all-round second row than Hill but, in this instance, circumstances have conspired to elevate the Chiefs lock over the unfortunate Ryan. Unless injury intervenes, he now has to wait another four years to attain Lions status, of which he is no doubt worthy.

Compare his situation to that of Leinster teammate Jack Conan. Conan had the misfortune to injure his foot prior to Ireland’s departure to the World Cup in Japan and, although he featured off the bench in the opening game against Scotland, had to return home immediately afterwards. That injury put him out for the game for over a year.

If Ryan’s timing couldn’t have been worse, Conan got his spot on. With Caelan Doris sidelined due to concerns surrounding concussion and Peter O’Mahony suspended, Conan found himself back in the selection mix with Ireland.

Starting against England, he completely outplayed Billy Vunipola, the front runner for the Lions No 8 shirt. In truth, Vunipola was off the pace for the entire campaign. In their ongoing battle with Eddie Jones, the English media were painting a credible case for Exeter Chiefs No 8 Sam Simmonds to make the Lions cut, with fair justification, despite (or maybe because) Jones had ignored his claims for international recognition since 2018.

It was Conan’s good fortune that, having seen off Vunipola, his next outing was a direct head to head with Simmonds when Leinster travelled to Sandy Park for that quarter-final. Once again, Conan seized his opportunity with another outstanding display, completely overshadowing Simmonds.

With Taulipe Faletau the leading contender for the test shirt and a shoe-in for selection, I thought it would come down to one from Conan or Simmonds. In the end Gatland picked both alongside Faletau. So Conan, who might not even be the best No 8 in Leinster — I think Doris would have travelled but for missing the entire Six Nations — now finds himself with the hottest ticket in rugby. Good luck to him.

Gatland’s comment that “if this tour had been to New Zealand or Australia then the squad would have been different” definitely applies to the midfield selections and the inclusion of six second rows, with either Henry Slade or Garry Ringrose likely to have got the nod ahead of Aki for an alternative trip.

Like Conan, the Connacht man seized his one Six Nations appearance when partnering Robbie Henshaw in the win over England in Dublin. His performance that day lit a bulb in Gatland’s head in identifying an alternative to Tuilagi if he failed to make it back in time.

The fact that Aki is so comfortable playing alongside Henshaw, right now a test certainty, was another factor. Nobody saw Rob Henderson starting all three tests alongside Brian O’Driscoll in Australia in 2001 but injuries to other players offered Henderson his chance. That midfield pairing had a great understanding from playing together with Ireland and Henderson seized his opportunity with both hands. 

Therefore, despite the shock inclusion of Aki, don’t rule out the possibility of Connacht’s 2016 PRO12 winning centre combination linking up again in South Africa.

Not for the first time, Gatland has made some calculated gambles in selection. He has been influenced greatly by what happened on the 2009 South African tour, when he was forwards coach, and how the Lions were blown away upfront in the first test.

Having seen the same template used to win the World Cup less than two years ago, his selection has been heavily influenced by the necessity to match the overwhelming physicality of the Springboks this time out. The big question is whether he has compromised the chances for success by sacrificing a potential edge in attacking creativity by doing so.

In the end, my selection differed in only six players to that announced last Thursday. I would stand over my preferences for Ryan, Ringrose and Kyle Sinckler in particular over Hill, Elliot Daly, Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland.

Meanwhile, down in South Africa, you could envision Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber together, watching the announcement of the Lions squad live in their office, rationalising the thought process behind every selection and factoring that into their own planning.

Not that they are short on problems of their own before turning their attention to Lions. This will be the first Lions series where the hosts enter the test arena even less prepared than the tourists. Apart from Simmonds, every Lion has experienced the intensity of international rugby, with two Six Nations campaigns packed into the last 18 months. No Springbok has set foot on the international stage since November 2019.

Preparatory tests against Italy and USA were ruled out over the last two weeks leaving Erasmus scrambling to organise two tests against Georgia. Failing that he could be restricted to an old fashioned probables v possibles final trial which smacks of desperation and could result in further injuries.

With over half his squad for the series plying their trade overseas, uncertainty surrounds when many will be free to travel home due to club commitments. 

Factor in also injuries to three first-choice locks in Eben Etzebeth, Lood De Jager and RG Snyman, coupled with the fact that World Cup winning No 10 Handre Pollard has just returned to action with Montpellier after nine months out with a cruciate injury. Now you begin to realise that, for once, the hosts face as many challenges as the tourists.

Gatland admitted that “in all my time in coaching this was the most challenging squad I’ve had to pick”.

One suspects Nienaber and Erasmus will echo those sentiments when it comes to announcing the Springbok squad for a series guaranteed to fascinate for so many reasons.

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