IT may not feel like it right now, but normality will return at some stage, and when it does the world of sport will play a huge part in making these long Covid-19 dominated months feeling like it was just one long bad dream.
Part of that return will be the return of top-level rugby to the sporting calendar, and with that in mind, it is easy to forget that, whether we realise it or not, we have officially entered Lions year.
This time next year all the rugby media talk will be around the looming British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa when hopefully the Coronavirus will be long forgotten.
The Lions coach Warren Gatland, who led the representative team to a series win in Australia seven years ago and a series draw in New Zealand three years ago, is back to complete the full Lions collection, and he will be eager to have gone through all three of rugby’s southern hemisphere giants undefeated.
Interestingly he has actually suggested this week that the Lions could potentially play a one-off Test against the All Blacks as a prep for the South African tour, which could effectively be a series decider from three years ago. The idea smacks of financial opportunism, but nonetheless, who here would NOT watch it?
It is by accident rather than design, but this tour will be the third tour in four where the Lions face off against the reigning world champions, which will certainly help the marketing men in terms of selling the product. Rassie Erasmus’ side may have been surprise world champions in Japan last year, but the Springboks have a tendency to wear the mantle of world champions well.
They beat the Lions as World Cup winners in 2009 and it took a monumental effort for the Lions to win the historic 1997 series, which was, of course, the first in the professional era.
Usually, at this time of year, we would have had a full Six Nations campaign to peruse in terms of identifying who were the early front runners for places in Gatland’s squad next summer.
Alas, we have no champions, no winners and, correspondingly, no losers, which means no one has really ruled themselves in or out.
We still do not know the fate of this year’s Six Nations Championship. Given that there are only four games remaining in the tournament it would seem a quick kill to finish it off in the November Internationals window, assuming of course, that normality has returned by then. If this was the case then the dash for Lions selection will seriously gather pace then.
In terms of which Irish players are likely to go, at this moment not too many can feel overly confident. The insipid last year of Joe Schmidt’s tenure, that ended with World Cup quarter-final defeat at the hands of New Zealand, damaged a lot of reputations, and despite beating both Scotland and Wales since, the loss to England at Twickenham would have done little as a reputational restoration project.
Quite simply, Ireland must improve drastically on rugby’s return otherwise their representation on the tour may be at its lowest since the aforementioned ’97 Tour.
There are a lot of players with big reputations who have been below par for the best part of 18 months now. That is a huge block of time to be out of form for. At what stage do you put a line through someone’s name and say that they are done? Past performance and reputation may see you retain your national jersey way past the time where your form merits it, but it certainly will not get you a Lions squad position, never mind a Test spot.
England would expect to get a lot of players on the plane if a squad was picked right now, while Wales’ Grand Slam and World Cup semi-final appearance are still recent enough to warrant plenty picks, so the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale would all be seriously struggling to make the frame right now on current form.
Perhaps only CJ Stander, James Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong would be confident of travelling at the minute, and to be honest, none would be favourites in their respective positions for Test berths right now.
Furlong would have been a cert this time last year, but his form has dipped and he is behind England’s Kyle Sinkler on current form. Likewise, while we all seriously rate Leinster’s James Ryan, you can be damn sure that Warren Gatland would have Alun Wyn Jones ahead of him in the pecking order, and he would probably be behind the likes of Maro Itoje too. CJ Stander would have similar issues, with that awesome England back row of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill leading the way, with the likes of Wales’ Justin Tipuric in the way also.
Irish rugby fans are certainly biased when it comes to their own, but the bottom line is that Ireland’s top players will have to earn the right to earn the honour of being Lions in South Africa in 2021 once rugby returns. The Lions brand sells itself as being ‘the best of the best’, and to that end Ireland’s players have to prove their worth in the green of Ireland over the next 12 months all over again if they want to get that phone call from Gatland.