So who would you take to South Africa with the British & Irish Lions? That was the question Warren Gatland threw out to his coaching team in a meeting by the Thames, with the results of their deliberations, and the head coach having the ultimate say, to be revealed at around midday today.
That is when the guessing games will come to halt, the pundits’ endless permutations chucked into the bin and we will finally learn the 36 players tasked with touring South Africa this summer and delivering a Test series victory over the world champion Springboks.
Having sounded out 60 players from Gatland’s long list of candidates about their availability to tour this July and August, the head coach received just one negative response, from England scrum-half Ben Youngs, thereby underlining just how special an honour it is to make the cut and count yourself among the finest players from these islands.
Whittling down those 59 into a squad of 36, however, will have been an onerous task afternoon. With Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree having declined Gatland’s invitation to reprise the roles that helped the Lions to their 2013 series win in Australia and the 2017 draw with the All Blacks, there was only one Irish-leaning voice in the room, and that came via Zoom as 2021 forwards coach Robin McBryde joined the conversation from Leinster’s quarantine hotel in Dublin following their Champions Cup exit in La Rochelle last Sunday.
How much of a demerit mark that semi-final loss will have on the number of Irish players selected will become known today but Leinster were the Lions’ sole representatives in the last four of Europe’s premier club competitions and that must count for something.
That will have been just one of the variables as Gatland weighs up the delicate balance he must strike for a schedule that is yet to be confirmed given the ongoing battles with Covid-19 in South Africa and a ponderous vaccine rollout that at the start of the week had reached just 0.5% of the population.
As Donal Lenihan wrote in these pages, selecting the first 25 of those 36 players is “straightforward” and there will have been unanimity around Gatland’s table where they are concerned.
It is the final pieces of the jigsaw that will have taken up the majority of their time. But how many Irish players will be on that list, and how many others will be hovering anxiously over their phones?
Here we run the rule over the definites, maybes, and possible surprise picks.
: The favourites are Ken Owens and English pair Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
: TADHG FURLONG is favourite to be tighthead Test starter ahead of Kyle Sinckler, with ANDREW PORTÉR offering the cover he provides with both Ireland and Leinster on both sides of the scrum.
: Mako Vunipola looks set to vie for a starting spot with Wales’s Wyn Jones.
: Alun Wyn Jones led Wales to the Six Nations title and could lead the Lions. Either way, he is rubber-stamped to tour with Maro Itoje, and Ireland’s JAMES RYAN and IAIN HENDERSON.
: TADHG BEIRNE’s rampaging Six Nations and his ability to play in the second row makes him a certainty alongside Scotland’s Hamish Watson, the player of the championship, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau of Wales and England’s Tom Curry. The remaining spots were up for grabs with Exeter’s Sam Simmonds a potential bolter having been overlooked by England and perhaps Billy Vunipola vying with CJ STANDER and JACK CONAN, who will hope his Six Nations form has lodged in the memory after disappointment against La Rochelle.
: Timing is everything and CONOR MURRAY’s run to a third tour and favourite as Test-starting nine has been perfection, his tactical kicking game and physicality ideally suited for a series with the Boks.
Tomos Williams could be the pick of Wales’s rich seam of half-backs though Gareth Davies is a Gatland favourite, while the surprise could be the veteran but in-form former England star Danny Care.
: JOHNNY SEXTON faces a fight to make the plane for a third tour with Dan Biggar the front-runner to start the Tests and Owen Farrell apparently set to defy recent indifferent form, though he may be selected as a centre.
Sexton will be under threat from Finn Russell and has not been helped by being sidelined since a concussion last month against Exeter Chiefs. Stuart Lancaster says he is training the house down with Leinster but will his coaching colleagues with a vote have listened?
: ROBBIE HENSHAW excelled for both Leinster and Ireland in recent months and the hope is GARRY RINGROSE will join his midfield partner on the plane. But there will be stiff competition from Lions veteran Jonathan Davies and England’s Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi, if they can convince fitness-wise. Scotland’s Cam Redpath and Chris Harris could be longshots.
: Could be a high Welsh representation here with Liam Williams, Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit all in flying form while Stuart Hogg, Jonny May and Anthony Watson will all have high hopes. HUGO KEENAN has an outside chance after an excellent Six Nations at full-back.