It was April of 2017 and a sizeable media gathering had descended on the Hilton Syon Park, the plush four-star hotel on the outskirts of London. There was a buzz around the lobby as journalists from Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and even further afield waited to file into the conference room ahead of Warren Gatland’s big announcement.
The Kiwi was overseeing his Lions tour as head coach and the most daunting of challenges lay ahead: a tour of his native land.
The Lions had been whitewashed 3-0 the last time they paid a visit to New Zealand in 2005 and it was shaping up to be another gruelling expedition. The All Blacks were back-to-back world champions and would face the Lions twice at their Eden Park fortress — a venue where they had not lost a Test match since 1994 — while Gatland’s motley crew would be negotiating their way through multiple logistical and cultural obstacles along the way.
Still, the looming tour had generated plenty of excitement and, despite the odds being firmly stacked against them, there was hope among the Lions ranks that they could do something special that summer.
Having a decent Irish representation would be most welcome as well and Gatland held up his side of the bargain by selecting 11 players in his 41-man squad. The chosen ones were Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne.
All things considered, not a bad outcome for Ireland. The 2016/17 season will always be defined by that historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago. However, it was far from a vintage campaign for the national team and the provinces.
On the domestic front, the Scarlets had blazed a trail on the way to Pro12 glory, beating Leinster with 14 men at the RDS before demolishing Munster in the final at the Aviva. Munster and Leinster would both be dumped out of the semi-finals of Europe for good measure.
Having been tipped for great things after their heroics in Soldier Field, Ireland endured a shaky Six Nations in the Spring. Busgate and a rare loss in Murrayfield was compounded by a 22-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff. The campaign was saved by a final-day fightback when England — chasing a second consecutive Grand Slam – were put to the sword in Dublin.
Despite all of that, the Irish players would give a brilliant account of themselves on that memorable tour with Furlong, O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton playing key roles in the Test series.
The big question now is how many Irish players can expect to make the flight to Cape Town to take on the world champion South Africans time time around? Murray and Sexton could rightfully lay claim to being one of the best half-back pairings in the world three years ago. The landscape is very different now.
The Munster scrum-half — a force of nature in 2016 and 2017 — is battling to keep his place at international level while Sexton will turn 36 during the tour.
You would still back both to make the cut, given their vast experience but starting spots look a long shot at this stage.
Then again, similar noises were being made about O’Brien three years ago. The Leinster flanker had been ravaged by injuries and was being written off, but O’Brien went on to start in all three Tests of the drawn series, earning rave reviews.
This time, the likes of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour all look good bets to make the trip to South Africa.
However all of them need a big Six Nations to get into the selection equation to face the Boks next summer.
Ronan Kelleher, Dan Leavy and Ryan Baird remain in the ‘bolters’ category for now.
Ryan has been tipped to start alongside Maro Itoje in the Test series for the past few years, but the Leinster second-row’s form has dropped a bit in recent times and England have an array of second rows who look tailormade to take on Eben Etzebeth and Co while Gatland rates Alun-Wyn Jones highly, the veteran Welsh second row being tipped by many to be named captain of the expedition.
As it stands, there are just two players would could stick their hand up and rightfully lay claim to a potential starting spot.
Furlong, despite his worrying injury issues of late, remains the premier tighthead in this part of the world and, provided he makes it back onto the field into the coming months, will be trusted to lock out the scrum while his Leinster colleague Caelan Doris — still only 22 — has arguably been the form No8 in Europe this season.
Big displays against Taulupe Faletau of Wales and Billy Vunipola of England will cement that status in the Six Nations.
The prospect of just two Irishmen running out in Soweto for the opening Test against the Boks next summer is a sobering one, but it’s a sign of Ireland’s struggles — they have four months to reverse that thinking.
LIONS FORM 23: E Daly (England); J May (England), J Davies (Wales), H Slade (England), L Williams (Wales); O Farrell (England), B Youngs (England); M Vunipola, J George, K Sinckler; M Itoje (all England), J Ryan (Ireland); C Doris (Ireland), T Curry (England), B Vunipola (England).
REPLACEMENTS: F Brown (Scotland), E Genge (England), A Porter (Ireland), AW Jones (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland), G Davies (Wales), F Russell (Scotland), R Henshaw (Ireland).