The last time The Lions went to South Africa, Ireland had just won the Grand Slam. Leinster were fresh off winning the Heineken Cup for the first time, a year after Munster had won it for the second time. Things couldn't have been better for Irish rugby. Ian McGeechan named 14 Irish men in his initial 37 man squad. Paul O'Connell was the tour captain.
12 years later, things aren't as certain for Irish players. There's certainly no sense that Irish players will dominate selection for Warren Gatland this time around.
Andy Farrell's Ireland team finished third in the Six Nations. A surprising Welsh victory in the competition will give Gatland the cover he needed to pick the players he's so familiar with, while a number of Scottish players put their hands up in a way they haven't in many a Lions tour. Gatland's coaching staff is also made up of Welsh and Scottish hands.
England may have had a miserable Six Nations, but the players that pried loose New Zealand's iron grip on the World Cup are still there and available and haven't become bad players over night. In other words, there's a lot of competition this time around.
Added to that, Gatland plans on naming a 36 man squad, one less than McGeechan's in 2009, and, importantly, significantly less than the 41 named in the last two squads.
That said, there still should be quite a few Irish Lions picked on Thursday. We've broken down the candidates for selection into four categories: the certs, the likelies, the hopefuls, and the outsiders.
Irish Lions - The Certs:
Tadhg Furlong - Prop
Robbie Henshaw - Centre
Conor Murray - Scrum Half
Unfortunately, there's only three names that are guaranteed their spot on the plane as things stand.
Henshaw has been in the form of his life this season, and with every week that goes by and every performance he puts in, he looks more and more nailed on to be a starter in Gatland's midfield.
Henshaw is second only to to his Leinster teammate Furlong in terms of certainties. The Wexford man returned to action in January after 11 months out of the game and it was as if he never missed a beat. Already with three test starts to his name in New Zealand tour years ago, he'll add another three this time bar injury, and will be the first name on Gatland's teamsheet, as he was for Ben Kay.
Conor Murray's form and selection is not as straight forward as the other two, but he's sure to make the squad. His form has improved in 2021, which will have been very welcome for Gatland. Even still, his pedigree, and the question marks over his positional rivals, means he has to taken on tour as a consideration. The Munster man will fancy his chances of being test scrum half again on his third tour.
Irish Lions - The Likelies:
James Ryan - Second Row
Iain Henderson - Second Row
Tadhg Beirne - Second Row/Flanker
Garry Ringrose - Centre
It might seem odd that three Irisb second rows are considered likely to go on the tour, especially in a position where two places in Maro Itoje and Alun-Wyn Jones will be nailed on. However, it's hard to see any of them being left at home.
In truth, James Ryan is the most under pressure of the three. In 2018, that would have seemed laughable but injuries and lack of form have halted the 24-year-old's momentum in the last year. Whereas Ryan looked set to effortlessly fill Paul O'Connell's boots a couple of years ago, it's now a little more obvious that Paul O'Connells don't just come along in every generation. That said, Ryan's pedigree is still strong and he has still produced at times this year. Gatland will certainly have had him in his plans over the last couple of years, so he would have a lot of credit in the bank. And yet, the coach won't have been happy with the performance he watched in La Rochelle on Sunday.
Ulster captain Iain Henderson grew and grew throughout the Six Nations and, when fit, is a no brainer for a squad like this. He played in all but one of the non-tests in New Zealand four years ago and acquitted himself very well.
Munster's Tadhg Beirne is the ultimate bolter. His form in 2021 has left many pundits calling for him to be a test starter for The Lions. Six months ago, he wasn't even in the conversation for a tour berth. His flexibility to play at 6 or in the second row will work in his favour here and it would be a massive surprise if he wasn't in the squad when named.
Garry Ringrose has had an injury hit season, and you would think he'd be assured of his place if not for that patchy form. On his day though, Ringrose is the best 13 from the four countries, and with converted centre George North ruled out, it's hard to see how there wouldn't be room for him on the plane. If Gatland resists the temptation to play Owen Farrell at 12, and move Henshaw to 13, Ringrose is likely to battle it for the test outside-centre spot with Henry Slade.
Irish Lions - The Hopefuls:
Johnny Sexton - Out-half
Andrew Porter - Prop
Cian Healy - Prop
CJ Stander - Backrow
Ronan Kelleher - Hooker
It feels a little up the air for all five of these guys, even a few days out.
We feel like Sexton should be a no-brainer. There is room for three 10s in the squad and Owen Farrell, Finn Russell and Sexton are the most likely. That said, Welsh fans will feel understandably aggrieved if Dan Biggar doesn't go, and do you ever bet against Gatland picking a Welsh player in a toss up? The evidence against Russell when the chips are down fills as big a dossier as ever, but is also as consistently ignored as ever.
In the Six Nations, Sexton was the best of the four. But he's also going to turn 36 during the tour. More worryingly, Warren Gatland won't want a player who can't stay on the pitch. His latest absence arguably cost Leinster a place in the Heineken Cup final.
Ultimately, Sexton has six test caps for The Lions already, something very few other can say and this experience will count.
Despite 109 international caps, Cian Healy has never won a test cap for the Lions and we worry it won't happen again this time. Withdrawing injured in 2013, and being cruelly overlooked in 2017 right before coming into the form of his life, you feel he deserves another chance, but with only room for three looseheads, it will come down to Healy, our old friend Ellis Genge and maybe even Joe Marler for that last spot, and we fear the Leinster man will miss out.
His teammate Porter shouldn't have the same issue. Furlong's absence in the last year has helped catapult him to world class level at his position, despite club and country competition from arguably the best. With Furlong and Kyle Sinckler nailed on, Porter looks in pole position to be the third tight head.
CJ Stander crowning his rugby career with a tour of his native South Africa with The Lions is absolute fairytale stuff, but we're just not sure his form warrants the call this time around. We can certainly see a path to his selection. Taulepe Faletau looks certain to be the test Number 8, but the next person on the depth chart isn't as clear. As an option at 6 or 8, Stander is still a good one for Warren Gatland.
If Tadhg Beirne can be considered a bolter, than we may need a new word for Ronan Kelleher if he makes it. Still not the first choice for Ireland, the dynamic Leinster hooker definitely has a chance and could be a wild card play for the third hooker for Gatland. Ken Owens and Jamie George will be first choice. Luke Cowan-Dickie is favourite for the next spot, but with Leinster coach Robin McBride among the staff, the game changing ability of someone like Kelleher from the bench will be given huge consideration.
Irish Lions - The Outsiders:
With Ireland's tour of the South Pacific looking less and less likely, we fear other Irish players might have the summer off. Some that will retain an outside hope of selection are:
John Cooney - Scrum Half: The rugby world outside of Ireland coaches are generally perplexed as to why Cooney doesn't get more game time with Ireland. With Ben Youngs out, there's a scrum-half spot open. If rumours are to be believed, that spot is going another player on the outs internationally, Danny Care, but Cooney will retain hope until the squad is announced.
Caelan Doris - Backrow: If he'd been playing rugby, Doris would surely have been on the plane, given his form in 2020. Alas, it's likely to be out of sight, out of mind for the competitive backrow selections.
Will Connors - Backrow: As an openside, Connors was showing bolter form all the way through the spring. Another one to get injured at the wrong time though, he was already going to be up against the most competitive position on The Lions this year, and needed everythng to go right for him right up until the squad was named.
Josh van der Flier - Backrow: As above. Van der Flier is playing the best rugby of his career, but with Hamish Watson struggling to make the squad as the Player of the Six Nations, it shows where we are with opensides right now. Justin Tipuric and Tom Curry are as good as there are in the world which makes it a desperately unfair competition in one of the most specialised positions on the pitch.
Jack Conan - Backrow: Another potential bolter that seems be outside of consideration if the odds and previews are to be believed. After injury hell, Conan has come back roaring. Man of the match in Ireland's win over England, you feel he should be at least getting some more consideration.
Jacob Stockdale - Winger/Fullback: You can be sure Gatland was pencilling in Stockdale for his squad a couple of years ago. Injuries and poor form have pushed out well outside of contention, but on pedigree alone, he can't be ruled out.
Keith Earls - Winger: Earls was overlooked in 2017, and went to Japan with Ireland where he reignited his career and has been playing the best rugby of his life ever since. He proved against England in March that he can still do it at the very top level too. It would be only fitting for him to bookend his Lions career in South Africa after touring as a 21-year-old in 2009, but it's unlikely, mainly because life is unfair.
James Lowe - Winger: Last autumn, Lowe would've had definite Lions hopes. Still as dangerous a winger as Gatland has to choose from, there's unfortunately too much competition for someone in as patchy form and with as many question marks over his defending.
Dave Kilcoyne - Prop: Another prop in form, he'll miss out for the same reasons that Healy is only a maybe. There's only room for three, and Wyn Jones and Mako Vunipola are going to be picked.
Peter O'Mahony - Backrow: A test captain last time around, missing the majority of the Six Nations was a disaster for the Munster captain. His club and country teammate Beirne will have replaced him with his versatility and form.
Hugo Keenan - Fullback: It would be the natural conclusion for Keenan's meteoric rise this season to end it with a Lions tour. His consistency and improvement will have been noted by the coach but it feels a tour too early for the Leinster man. Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams will be vying for a test spot at 15, while there are a number of wingers in contention for the other back three spots.
Predictions: 9 Irish Lions in 36-man squad:
Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter (Props)
James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne (Second Row/Back Row)
Conor Murray (Scrum-half)
Johnny Sexton (Out-half)
Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose (Centres)
Exactly a quarter of the squad seems about likely for Ireland, with less members than England and Wales, and more than Scotland. As always with Lions squads, injuries are plentiful and call-ups are frequent. Expect the likes of Kelleher and Healy to be called up at some stage if they don't make the original squad.
We eagerly await Warren Gatland's announcement on Thursday.