THIS day next week Warren Gatland announces his 36-man British and Irish Lions squad to travel to South Africa.
Three Munster players were selected by the former Wales head coach in 2017 as CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray all played key roles in New Zealand.
This time around at least one new player is expected to join Munster’s list of Lions representatives.
Second row and flanker Tadhg Beirne has been one of Europe’s elite forwards since 2017 and the Kildare man’s outstanding performance in the 2021 Six Nations surely cements him a place in Gatland’s plans. Beirne consistently brings aggression, breakdown brilliance and silky skills to the table so it is no surprise that he is the name on every Irish supporter’s lips in advance of the announcement.
There are however other Munster players in contention. Though Ireland legends Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray have not enjoyed the best form of their careers lately, a shortage of world class talent in their positions could work in their favour.
O’Mahony is clearly highly-rated by Warren Gatland having captained the Lions in their first test match against New Zealand four years ago. Such regard could help him receive a call-up as a valuable mentor within the group. The Corkman admitted himself that he probably hasn’t played enough rugby to come into contention however and is instead focused on preparing for Ireland’s tour of Fiji.
Murray has improved his form gradually this season but even at his lowest-ebb, his World Rugby Team of the Decade pedigree always made him a squad member worth considering. This would be the scrumhalf’s third Lions tour and he is yet to lose a series having been involved against Australia in 2013 and the All Blacks in 2017.
CJ Stander faces stiff competition for a starting place from Wales star Taulupe Faletau but the 31 year-old nonetheless looks very likely to make the wider squad. Stander signed off his Ireland career with a high-quality Six Nations campaign and has remained at the heart of both Munster and Ireland’s greatest days since his last Lions tour. Selection would see Stander finish his career in poetic fashion back on South African soil where it all started.
Keith Earls travelled with the Lions to South Africa in 2009 as a 21 year-old and could also have an outside shot at making the squad. Earls was another standout player for Ireland in the Six Nations and scored twice against Toulouse in the Champions Cup round of sixteen at Thomond Park earlier this month. Welsh prodigy Louis Rees Zammit burst onto the scene this year to make Earls’ chances that bit slimmer but Gatland could well be tempted by Earls’ unrivaled defensive intelligence and acrobatic finishing.
The options at loosehead prop are not as fruitful as they perhaps were in 2017 and there have been whispers of a surprise inclusion for Limerick’s David Kilcoyne. Kilcoyne has played the rugby of his life in the past two seasons and although a place in the Lions would be a shock to many, it would be a more than welcome one for Munster Rugby supporters.