With Irelands Munster contingent returning to UL this week, focus will turn back to the European Champions Cup clash with Toulouse in less than a fortnights time on April 1. With many impressing in the absence of the Irish internationals, they know that they will be made to work in order to regain their place for the European Quarter Final.
However, on the horizon now is the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Warren Gatland will name is 37 strong squad on April 19 which is sure to include several Irish players, including some Munster and Limerick men. Here we look at each Munster player who is in with a shout of making the cut.
Second Row-Donnacha Ryan
The oldest man on the list, Donnacha Ryan has blossomed as a player with age. Often overlooked early on his career due to the presence of Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan, Ryan was primarily used as a replacement since his Munster debut in 2004. 13 years on and Ryan is one of Munster’s main men. A commanding presence in the line-out, Ryan is a leader for both club and country.
His finest hour came last November in Soldiers Field in Chicago as Ireland toppled the All-Blacks. Since Ryan has further grown as a top class international and is arguably Ireland’s number one Second Row. His absence against Scotland on the opening day of the Six Nations was key in Ireland’s defeat.
Ryan has an outside chance if he continues his impressive form for Munster over the next month. However, with Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury and the Grey brothers almost certain to travel there may not be room for Ryan. Yet, if based on form, Ryan may travel.
Back Row- Peter O’Mahony
Peter O’Mahony has rarely put a foot wrong in an Irish jersey. Were it not for a horrific injury suffered in the final group game against France in the World Cup in 2015, Ireland may well have beaten Argentina. However, as it transpired, O’Mahony would miss the remainder of the season and has only this season recaptured his fitness and form from then.
In the meantime, CJ Stander has qualified to represent Ireland and has been an ever present in the number 6 jersey for Ireland. O’Mahony bided his time and against the English on the final day of the 2017 Six Nations, after injury to Jamie Heaslip, Mahony was named to start on the blindside with Stander moved to 8.
What followed was one of the great individual Six Nations performances of all time. O’Mahony was simply immense in preventing the English winning back to back Grand Slams, with the highlight, a stunning line out steal against one of the best line out operators in the world, Maro Itoje.
O’Mahony will hope that a strong showing against Toulouse will give Warren Gatland no choice but to choose O’Mahony. What sets him apart is his leadership qualities and ability in the lineout. With O’Mahony in a side causes sides all sorts of problems as it gives the team another dimension in the air. O’Mahony is also a superb player at the breakdown and is a willing runner with ball in hand.
Whilst he only started one game in the Six Nations, expect O’Mahony to named in Gatland’s squad and tour with the Lions team for the first time.
Back Row-CJ Stander
Barring injury, CJ Stander will travel to New Zealand this summer as a Lion. He is also nearly nailed on to start the First Test in the Back-Row. While he is a No.8 by trade with Munster, all but one of his Ireland appearances at blindside flanker, with the exception against the English where he got his chance in the No.8 shirt.
Stander’s versatility coupled with his incredible engine and talent will make him a valued asset for Warren Gatland in the Summer. Furthermore, Stander was instrumental in Ireland’s defeat of the All-Blacks and so knows what it takes to beat them.
Stander will shift his focus back to Munster from now until the end of the season where there are honours on the line with the team currently 3rd in the Pro12 and in a Champions Cup QF. Stander as captain will lead by example upon his return from International duty.
Furthermore, Stander, albeit not originally from Britain or Ireland is an outside bet as Captain of the Lions.
Half-Back- Conor Murray
The Lions starting number 9. As nailed on as could be and his experience from 2013 and leadership on and off the field will be a huge asset.
The Limerick man is the world’s best scrum half and will be able to further enhance his reputation this summer if he can stay injury free. 4 years ago he toured as a raw 24-year-old 3rd choice and finished as arguably first choice.
This year he is the man in the driving seat. His potential partnership with Johnny Sexton will be vital for Gatland’s men.
Back Three- Simon Zebo
Four years ago, Zebo was left out of the initial Lions squad to tour Australia. However, after Tommy Bowe broke his hand Zebo was selected to replace Bowe in the squad. Prior to the Six Nations, Zebo seemed certain to tour with his impressive performances for Munster at full-back standing out in Europe.
However, after a good, yet unspectacular Six Nations on the wing for Ireland, Zebo’s place in the squad is up for grabs. With a host of back three to compete with, Zebo will know that the Toulouse game will act as an audition for boss Warren Gatland.
Zebo’s ability to play across the back three will stand to him when it comes to squad selection. More than capable at full-back, Zebo’s versatility may give him the edge against the likes of Tommy Seymour, Anthony Watson, etc.
The Cork man if selected will no doubt be able to provide the X-Factor needed to beat the All-Blacks as he showcased in Chicago last November with a well taken try.
Back Three- Keith Earls
Keith Earls had another impressive Six Nations for Ireland and has seemed to nail down one of the wing berths for Ireland. Was Ireland’s and overall joint top try-scorer with three tries in the tournament.
Much more direct than his counterpart Zebo, Earls has pace to burn but is rarely able to show it for Ireland as they play with a narrow and direct approach. However, with the men in red, Earls is released far more often to devastating effect.
Like Zebo, his versatility could be crucial to his chances of touring. Able to cover across the back three as well as the two centre berths, the Moyross man is definitely in contention to travel to the Southern Hemisphere.
Travelled to South Africa as a raw 20-year-old in 2009 with a world of potential. Has been blighted with injuries during the years and wasn’t considered for the 2013 squad as a result. Yet don’t rule out Earls being included due to his experience and quality.