2013 Lions: Irish stars' chance of one up on Welsh

Leigh Halfpenny takes on Rob Kearney

RABO DIRECT PRO12 FINAL: Ulster v Leinster

Saturday, 25 May
16:45 BST
Live on BBC2 Northern Ireland, BBC Two Wales, BBC Sport website and Radio Ulster

This weekend's Pro12 final may be an all-Irish affair, but with the Lions tour kicking off against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June, there are more than a few reasons why Welsh fans will be watching with interest.

When the Lions squad was announced,

No surprises there, given their on the final weekend of the Six Nations.

But the Welsh regions could not match the success of the national side, with only the Scarlets making it through to the competition's knockout stages.

That has allowed Lions colleagues from the other three nations to steal a march on their Welsh rivals. Wales centurion Martyn Williams should know.

Having been on three Lions tours the former open-side admits some individuals will be looking over their shoulders

"Undoubtedly some of the boys in the Lions camp will be looking at their rivals in the Pro12 final and thinking 'I hope they don't play too well, I hope they don't get man of the match'."

And while certain players are already perceived to be Test frontrunners, there is nothing like a Lions tour to upset the established order.

In 1997, Paul Wallace leapfrogged more experienced candidates, to become the Test tight-head as the Lions beat the hugely physical Springboks.

He thinks Saturday's match could be crucial for those jostling for position, saying: "If I was in this Lions squad, I'd want to be playing in the Pro12 final.

"The players involved will be more battle-hardened and better equipped to cope with the pressures coming their way... for some of the Welsh guys, it'll be a long time since they've been involved in a competitive match."

A month ago, Leigh Halfpenny would probably have been the first name inked into everyone's Lions team sheet.

But rugby moves fast, and his two rivals for the shirt - Scotland's Stuart Hogg and Ireland's Rob Kearney - have since made the most of their opportunities.

Kearney was in imperious form last Friday as Leinster trounced Stade Francais to take the Amlin Challenge Cup, while Stuart Hogg was part of an impressive Glasgow performance that narrowly lost to Leinster in the Pro12 semi-finals.

Wallace believes his countryman has already stolen a march on his Welsh rival, saying: "Halfpenny is a great kicker, but if you have Jonny Sexton in the team, then do you need another place-kicker?

"Kearney has the all-round game. He's a great individual runner, has a massive left boot, and is big, physical guy, the kind that Gatland loves.

"And he has the experience of being the Test full-back from four years ago. Another good display this weekend will put him right in the frame."

Tommy Bowe beats George North to score against Wales in 2012
Tommy Bowe beats George North to score against Wales in 2012

In Saturday's final there will potentially be seven Lions on display.

Leinster have six in their ranks, with Tommy Bowe the lone Ulsterman to have made the plane to Australia.

Injury kept him out of the Six Nations, but since his return he has shown he has lost none of the pace, intelligence, and predatory instincts that made him a Test Lion four years ago.

In April, George North and Alex Cuthbert were odds-on favourites to occupy both wing berths for the Lions.

But Bowe was up against North when Ulster beat the Scarlets in the other semi, and he won the individual battle with a try-scoring performance. This weekend, he gets another opportunity, in a pressured environment.

Toby Faletau was the form home nations number eight during the Six Nations, with his main rival Jamie Heaslip struggling in a disappointing Irish side, and perhaps with the burden of captaincy. But Leinster's march through the latter stages of the Pro12 and the Amlin has seen Heaslip return to his rampaging best.

Wallace adds: "Faletau is a great carrier, but Heaslip is the glue of any back row... and is the best link man of all the contenders. His head-to-head with Nick Williams on Saturday will be keenly watched by the Lions coaches."

Cian Healy is another who has had a number of chances to usurp his main rival for the loose-head shirt - Gethin Jenkins. While Jenkins can now add Heineken Cup winner to his impressive list of achievements, he has seen far less action than Healy of late.

Healy always attracts attention on the pitch, as he did last Friday with a try-scoring contribution to Leinster's Amlin Cup final win. Wallace thinks his trajectory is on an ever-upward curve, saying: "His performance against Glasgow in the Pro12 semi was his best ever in a Leinster shirt.

"The loose-head shirt for the Lions is a straight shoot-out between him and Gethin. Gethin may be fresher having played less rugby this season, but no-one can match what Healy brings in the loose."

And we have yet to mention the man about to embark on his fourth Lions tour.

Brian O'Driscoll may have lost some of the searing pace that made him such a revelation down under in 2001, but nobody can question his pedigree.

A bona fide contender for the captaincy before it was given to Warburton, O'Driscoll will not be content to make up the numbers. A trophy winning performance on Saturday would do his Lions Test 15 chances no harm.

But although those involved in the Pro12 final have another chance to impress in a competitive match, Martyn Williams thinks the balance of power may ultimately lie with those not involved.

The 100-Wales cap pundit says: "Warren Gatland bases a lot of his decisions on seeing how guys train, and those already in camp will have a head start on those that join up later.

"Make no mistake, every single member of that 37-man squad will desperately want to start that first game against the Barbarians.

"And the guys arriving late will be at a disadvantage in that regard. They'll be playing catch up. And if the guys who start that Test win, and win well, they'll be in the box seat."

However, Williams admits there would be no question where he'd want to be this weekend.

"No doubt about it, I'd prefer to be contesting a Pro12 final for the Blues.

"That's what we play for; to win trophies. And winning does wonders for your self-confidence.

"If Leinster win on Saturday, those six Lions will arrive in camp brimming with confidence."

So, while Saturday's final will determine who'll replace the Ospreys as Pro12 champions, it is more than just a season finale. It is a Lions trial.

And a chance for the men across the Irish Sea to add a little more green to the cloak of red surrounding the Lions.

Watch the Pro12 Final live on Scrum V, BBC Two Wales from 16:30 BST on Saturday, 25 May.

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