Former Lions tourist Tony Ward says a number of Leinster and Munstermen played themselves into tour spots this weekend thanks to their performances in Europe.
Munster produced a huge showing to see off English Champions Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final at The Stoop, while reigning continental kings Leinster were in imperious form on their first outing in the Amlin Challenge Cup at Wasps.
Munster’s 18-12 success in London and Leinster’s 48-28 victory in Wycombe were both watched by Lions head coach Warren Gatland and 1980 Lions fly-half Ward believes he will have been impressed with what he saw from the Irish contingent.
“Following a hugely disappointing Six Nations, it was a good weekend for Irish rugby,” wrote Ward in the Irish Independent.
“Suddenly, with a semi-finalist in each of the two European competitions and with the realistic possibility of some 10 Irish Lions, it's all to play for in the coming weeks.
“In terms of Lions selection, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip certainly did themselves no harm at all on Friday night.
“Jonny Sexton is still the nation's number one No10 and will, barring an extraordinary drop in form, be the Lions Test out-half in Australia.
“Paul O'Connell's name is, given Sunday's performance, chiselled in Lions stone. Such was the substance to this extraordinary display that it could well be as captain, although the leadership case for the other still-active legend, Brian O'Driscoll, remains strong.
“Of the Munster contingent, apart from O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo, probably in that order, put up their hands for Lions berths.
“Donnacha Ryan too – given his versatility – has to be in with a shout.”
Things weren’t quite so rosy for Ulster, though, as they were comprehensively beaten 27-9 by Saracens in their Heineken Cup clash at Twickenham on Saturday night.
Ward reckons a trio of the Belfast-based squad are still in the running for a tour spot but he concedes that Ulster are unlikely to provide the type of contingent that they had once hinted at when they started the season so strongly.
“At Twickenham, in what was a disappointingly poor Ulster performance, only Rory Best, Craig Gilroy and possibly Tommy Bowe – by dint of his reappearance – provided timely reminders to the watching Warren Gatland, although Iain Henderson again underlined his promise.
“Only Best could be deemed a probable tourist from the province that had set the pace for so long this season.”