As an Irish squad we were pleased with performances this year, on a personal level it was a shame having to miss the last game of the Championship through injury. It would‘ve been great to be involved for the England game.
From an Irish perspective, I think the outstanding players have got to be CJ Stander and Tadgh Furlong. CJ also stands out to me as one of the home nation’s best performers alongside Stuart Hogg and my opposite number Rhys Webb, who is always a tough opponent!
People ask if Lions selection is something I think about during a Lions Tour year, and I have to be honest and say not really. I’ve always been a believer that if I’m playing well and achieving consistent performances week in, week out then the summer will take care of itself.
I’m lucky enough to call myself a Lion, having toured to Australia in 2013. That year I can admit that I thought may have a chance of making it into the squad, but you honestly never really know until it’s announced. I’ve never felt nerves like it waiting to hear and when I saw my picture come up on the screen, it was incredible – it’s a great way to announce the squad. Making my debut in that red jersey was absolutely amazing, just physically putting it on and getting to play in it, knowing that you’re now a Lion, it’s something really special. My tour bag essentials for that trip were lots of music, a few good books, my laptop and an iPhone to keep myself up to date with the world outside camp.
I was lucky to play alongside some serious talent in 2013, Manu Tuilagi stood out as being a bit special. I was also able to get some test points on the board down under. It was a great feeling, I really like scoring any try for my team and Nation, but doing it in a Lions jersey is just special, hard to explain unless you have done it!
There is always a lot of banter flying around on Tour, excitement levels are high and there are always some big characters who love to make everyone laugh. Towards the end of the 2013 Tour we were playing Melbourne Rebels in a pretty big game. It was the week before the second test and everyone was working hard to perform well. Everyone knew that we all had a shot at getting into that Test match squad and I felt it was going pretty well for me in the first half. I think I had scored a try and I was trying to play as well as I could. I remember being at the bottom of a ruck, there can’t have been more than couple of minutes to go before half time. Play rolled on and the lads set up another ruck as I was getting back on to my feet, it was at that point I heard my good friend Simon Zebo roar at me from the back field …. “That’s half time, that’s half time, just kick it out”.
I trusted him as you would trust a good friend and I just ran over to the ruck and picked the ball up, I kicked it almost backwards, just kicked it over the touchline and presumed it was half time. I started jogging off into the dressing room…. It wasn’t half time apparently as the ref blew his whistle and said “line out, line out there”. I looked over at Zeebs and he was breaking himself laughing at me. It was a prank, he found very funny in a week like that, in a game like that. I’ll never forget it!
This year’s tour to New Zealand will be tough, but it’s something every player wants to test themselves against. I think the three players, in my opinion, who have made the biggest claim to deserving a seat on the plane are Alun Wyn Jones, Johnny Sexton and Stuart Hogg … but there is still a lot of rugby to be played. We all still have domestic and European rugby campaigns to complete and you never know who may emerge at the business end of the season.
Being Irish, I have to say I think Rory Best has shown the ability to Captain this year’s Lions squad. I would obviously back my Captain, but I feel Rory would be a super leader as he possesses all the skills you need - leadership, experience, and an ability to bring players together, build momentum … while keeping your feet on the ground!
There is always a huge emphasis on getting a tour group to bond as quick as possible and team building will be part of that for whoever travels to New Zealand. It’s important to bond on and off field and it’s one of the unique parts of being a Lion, who knows what the management and coaching staff will have in store!
Whether I’m selected or not I hope that we win the test series, I think we’re closer than ever to New Zealand rugby and I know how good it feels to beat them. Yes it’s daunting, but the challenge is one of the reasons we do what we do.