Eddie O'Sullivan's Lions plan for James Ryan not as far-fetched as it seems
"I think he's that material."
A couple of weeks before the 2021 Six Nations and both James Ryan and Caelan Doris would have been in many conversations for the Lions' summer tour to South Africa.
Back then, we did not know if those games would be played in South Africa, the UK or even Australia. We now know that the tour is planned to go ahead in The Rainbow Nation, even if there are no fans allowed into stadiums.
What is less clear are those Lions chances of two of Ireland's best young forwards.
Both Doris and Ryan have sat out spells due to concussion. Ryan started three games but left two of them for Head Injury Assessments and was ruled out of the France and England matches. Doris sat out the entire championship after suffering concussion-like symptoms and even flew to England for additional medical advice on the matter.
The Six Nations offers the best platform, and proving ground, for Lions hopefuls and Ryan will have been frustrated to miss out on those huge matches against France and England. He should still make Warren Gatland's final Lions squad, but other locks - including Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne - are now large dots on the radar.
When it came to selecting their Lions XV for the opening Test against the world champion Springboks, RTE's Against The Head show called on the big guns of Donal Lenihan, Eddie O'Sullivan and Bernard Jackman.
As Jackman joked, the trio formed an old-school 'selection committee' with him the junior member and deferring on big calls when it got spicy.
The three men settled on a Lions XV with a 6-4-4-1 spread that was Wales heavy and Scotland light. The Irish players making the starting team are:
- Tadhg Furlong
- Tadhg Beirne
- Johnny Sexton
- Robbie Henshaw
The second show of the three Irish pundits is made up of Maro Itoje and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Beirne selected at blindside.
O'Sullivan must have been out-voted 2-to-1 as he has a plan for Ryan this summer. He commented:
"The one that I would have a big bake about is James Ryan. I would actually have James Ryan in, and I would probably make him captain as well.
"I think he's that material. I think a Lions tour would suit him. Alun Wyn Jones has been a fantastic player, but I think Ryan brings something different and fresh... I'd roll the dice with Ryan."
— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) March 23, 2021
Lenihan says it is 'a toss of a coin' with Ryan and Jones but went for the Welshman as he would be a better choice as captain.
The former Ireland and Lions team manager has a point, but I feel Jones could make the squad as tour captain but not necessarily start in the Test Series. As Gatland has shown in the past, with Sam Warburton and Peter O'Mahony, he is not afraid to leave his tour captain out of a Test team if it is for the benefit of the team.
Ryan has captained Ireland already and while it would be a big ask to bestow Lions captaincy on him for the entire tour, it is a role he could carry out in specific games.
Gatland may decide Ryan, if he starts, is better suited to speaking to the referees than Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, who both may start but are further back from the action. Itoje would be another captaincy contender, but his high penalty count in the Six Nations would count against him.
As it all shakes out, a strong finish to the season with Leinster should see Ryan selected for the tour. If he gets a start early in the tour, he will have the opportunity to push a Test claim.
Do not be surprised to see him starting against the Springboks and, who knows, Eddie O'Sullivan may not be too far off the pace with his captaincy shout.