Baird and Kelleher named as two of four possible Lions bolters
"He could be a bit of a wildcard to start."
The latest chat around the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa, this summer, is that there could be a reduced schedule of games and travelling party of players.
It is expected that the touring Lions will have to base themselves in one part of South Africa and confine themselves to a bio-secure bubble that would not go far beyond their hotel and training facilities. The South Africans would much prefer if all eight fixtures were fulfilled, as will the broadcasters, but as many as two or three games could be cut.
With that in mind, Lions head coach Warren Gatland could be forced to select only 35 or 36 players, meaning lots of top talents will be left at home. It reduces the chances of 'bolters' or outside shots making that tour, but Gatland could yet surprise us all with a couple of his selections.
In discussing these outsiders, four names have been mentioned by some of the leading rugby figures in Europe. Two of them are Irish.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [LISTEN from 29:00], Fergus McFadden talked up one Irish forward while on the UK edition of the show, a case was made for Ryan Baird.
When selecting their Lions XV for the First Test against South Africa, McFadden, Ian Madigan and Eimear Considine settled on a front row of Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Tadhg Furlong.
McFadden, though, raised the possibility of Kelleher making the cut. He commented:
"Hooker is a funny one, because I know Ken Owens has been so solid, and he has been brilliant for Wales. What will work in his favour is that Gatland knows him really well. But I wonder if there’s a chance for a bit of a bolter, as well.
"You need big hookers. You need athletic ones to play South Africa, and Ronan Kelleher really is. If Gatland has watched him, and he likes him, I think he would be a great guy to bring down there. He could be a bit of a wildcard to start."
Madigan makes the point that no-one, bar Wales' Ken Owens, made an impregnable case to make the Lions squad at hooker.
"Someone like Jamie George," said Madigan, "he’s now going back to play Championship, so he doesn’t actually have the opportunity to really put his hand up, in the Premiership or Europe… You’d be thinking, ‘I’m back to my club and I can still salvage it’.
"If Sarries went and did the Premiership and European double and he was at the centre of it, then he would have been back in the mix. I don’t think, now, that he is someone they can really pick. He’s not going to have played top level rugby, in this calendar year, going into the Lions Tour. It definitely is teed up for a bolter. And someone like Ronan Kelleher, who is going to be playing top level rugby in both The Rainbow Cup and Champions Cup. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be him."
Over on House of Rugby UK, Sean O'Brien talked up Leinster forward Ryan Baird, who made an impact off the bench in each of his three Six Nations appearances.
"Baird is fast, physical," said O'Brien, "and I think he could be a late bolter for the Lions if he finishes the season well."
Going further afield and the comments of Adam Jones and Ugo Monye - both with Harlequins ties - have sprung England scrumhalf Danny Care into the conversation.
Care's Harlequins go head-to-head with John Cooney's Ulster, on Sunday, in the Challenge Cup. One would not be surprised if Gatland and his coaches are not keeping tabs of events at The Stoop.
The final outside shout is not so much of a bolter, considering his past Lions experience, but his selection would surprise many. Over on The Ruck, it was suggested that if Quins and England loosehead Joe Marler was winning to travel to South Africa, he would be a lock.
"It's whether he could face the trip," said Alex Lowe of Marler, who opted out of England's recent Six Nations campaign.
Gatland is not expected to name his team until May 6 so, until that day, the selection debates will rage on.
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