2017 Ireland squad to the USA and Japan: The winners and losers
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 18/05/17 4:37pm
With 11 Irish players due to be away with Warren Gatland's British & Irish Lions squad in New Zealand this summer, Joe Schmidt has handed eight uncapped players a chance to show what they can do in the USA and Japan.
Ireland's Kiwi boss has left out a number of names expected to travel however, while there are also one or two big surprises among his 31-man panel.
With the next World Cup in Japan in two years time, and the fact that Ireland and the prospective hosts have been drawn into the same pool, the tour has undoubtedly taken on an added significance.
Here are our winners and losers from the squad...
Winner: Andrew Porter
An absolutely enormous prop, Porter was a star of the Ireland U20's 2016 run to the World Championship final, and part of a dominant Irish set-piece which comprehensively saw off the likes of Wales, New Zealand and Argentina.
Powering the scrum from the loosehead side, it appeared the only thing stopping Porter from lining out for Leinster upon his return were internationals Jack McGrath and Cian Healy.
As a result, and with the added issue of stalwart Mike Ross' impending retirement, Leinster spent the season developing Porter on the tighthead side.
Despite having only ever started one PRO12 game to date in his career, against Zebre in November and at loosehead no less, and having only amassed 197 minutes of pitch-time throughout the entire season, Porter travels as Schmidt's fifth prop. Healy and Dave Kilcoyne go as looseheads while John Ryan and Finlay Bealham travel as tightheads, with Porter a man who can now cover both.
His severely-limited game time and the fact that both Bealham and Ryan have played at loosehead before however, means his inclusion is a major surprise.
Losers: James Cronin, Denis Buckley
Despite Munster's poor campaign last season, prop Cronin had established himself in the early part as the form loosehead in Ireland, and was tipped to heavily challenge Jack McGrath during the Six Nations.
Having usurped Kilcoyne at Munster under the late Anthony Foley, and with Healy out injured, it was a straight shootout between Cronin and McGrath for the Ireland No 1 jersey. Now, however, Cronin finds himself out of the international picture altogether, with a mixture of ill-discipline and injuries seriously disrupting his progression.
In mid-October, Cronin was banned for four weeks after stamping on Leinster's Jamison Gibson-Park, effectively ruling him out of the equation for selection for Ireland's November Tests.
In his very first game back for Munster against the Maori All Blacks he sustained a pec injury, keeping him out for another month, while in January, with him performing well and dovetailing with Kilcoyne in the Munster team week on week under Rassie Erasmus, he picked up a serious finger injury which ruled him out for eight weeks and the entirety of the Six Nations window.
Connacht prop Buckley enjoyed a sensational run of form under Pat Lam between 2014/15 and 2015/16, making the PRO12 Dream Team on each occasion, and forming a key part of the Connacht team which clinched the title last year against all odds.
Widely regarded as unlucky to miss out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad, there was shock when he again wasn't included in Ireland's 2016 tour to South Africa after a tremendous season.
Rather ironically though, Buckley has been name-checked more by Schmidt during the current campaign, with his and his team's form not what it has been, than at any other previous occasion.
Alas, he was again ignored and the 26-year-old Roscommon native must wonder if he will ever get his chance at international level.
Winner: Dave Heffernan
With Rory Best travelling with the Lions, and Sean Cronin left at home, uncapped Connacht hooker Heffernan was a surprise addition to the squad.
Largely second choice at Connacht behind Tom McCartney, 26-year-old Heffernan was, quite amazingly, only converted to a hooker from a back-rower before the start of the 2013 season.
The County Mayo man will be competing with Munster's Niall Scannell and Leinster No 2 James Tracy on tour, in a fairly youthful hooker selection.
Loser: Sean Cronin
For years Ireland's bench option behind Best, the impact, energy and pace that Cronin provides as a replacement has been key to several successes under Joe Schmidt throughout the years.
Harbouring hopes of securing a Lions squad spot as result of such impact, Cronin's serious hamstring injury in January could not have come at a worse time for him.
He missed the whole Six Nations and any opportunity to impress Gatland and his coaching staff, while Scannell and Tracy came into the Irish set-up and impressed, with the Munster man going on to feature in each Six Nations clash.
Though Cronin returned in April and made a typically searing break around Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar to coast to the tryline in his first game back, the 31-year-old European Cup and Six Nations winner ultimately missed out on Lions selection.
Ending the season with a neck compliant, Cronin has now also missed out on Irish squad selection and with it perhaps any chance of an injury call-up from Gatland.
Winner: James Ryan
Part of the same stellar Ireland U20's team as Porter, James Ryan actually captained the side in their run to the final with a series of commanding and eye-catching displays.
Starting the first-year of an academy contract with Leinster upon the resumption of that competition, Ryan stepped up into first-team training and was marked as one to breakthrough until a serious grade-three hamstring injury in December.
A player with huge potential, Ryan has always been considered as a near certainty, fitness permitting, to feature for Ireland at some point. The surprise at this call-up though is the fact that he has yet to actually feature for the senior Leinster side at all.
Such an occurrence is exceedingly rare and almost unheard of. Who was the last Irishman to play for Ireland before their province? A certain Brian O'Driscoll in 1999.
Loser: Donnacha Ryan
It's a tale of two Ryans in the second-row as Munster's Donnacha Ryan misses out. The 33-year-old has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career both for his province and country but there could be more to this omission than meets the eye.
A starter in the history-making triumph over New Zealand in Chicago in November, Ryan also finished the Six Nations with a superb performance against England in Dublin to wreck their Grand Slam hopes.
For Munster, Ryan has been a central figure in their inspired run to the semi-final of the Champions Cup but is on his way out after agreeing a move to Racing 92.
On an IRFU central contract since 2013, Ryan was not offered a new one by performance director David Nucifora despite his form, and though Rassie Erasmus confirmed Munster offered the best two-year provincial deal they could, it would have meant Ryan taking a fairly hefty wage deduction.
With several Irish players abroad - such as Marty Moore and Ian Madigan - frozen out of the international picture by Schmidt after their departure, the same could now be happening with Ryan.
Winner: Jack O'Donoghue
Munster No 8 O'Donoghue has long been tipped to make a mark on the international stage, having exploded onto the scene with Munster two years ago.
Still only 23, O'Donoghue has struggled to find a way past Munster's first-choice back row of Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander, and endured a mixed year for his province, mixing promising displays with inconsistent ones.
Having made his debut against Canada in November, the Waterford man has found a way into Schmidt's highly-competitive back row stocks for the summer tour, and the former Ireland U20 man will be keen to impress.
Loser: Jamie Heaslip
Unlike with Donnacha Ryan, Leinster's Jamie Heaslip, also 33, was afforded a new central contract by Nucifora this season, signing a three-year extension in January.
The No 8 has played for Ireland 95 times and toured with the Lions both in 2009 and 2013, featuring in five of the six Tests, so his pedigree is undisputed and he is a trusted member of Schmidt's.
Injury struck before Ireland's final Six Nations clash with England in March though, and the man who replaced him in the team, Peter O'Mahony, played his way into the Lions set-up with a vintage performance.
Heaslip hasn't played since, but would have been hoping to be included on the tour to the USA and Japan so as to be in the mind of Gatland when injuries inevitably happen. No such luck though.
Winner: John Cooney
With very few surprises in the fly-half department, we've combined the scrum-halves and 10s into one section, with Cooney the clear winner.
The uncapped Connacht scrum-half has performed well in the league but has largely been behind Kieran Marmion in the pecking order for his province, let alone his country.
Moving to Ulster in the summer with the unenviable task of trying to fill club legend Ruan Pienaar's boots, Cooney will hope to give the Ulster faithful a taste of what he can do in the USA and Japan.
Losers: James Hart, Ian Madigan
With Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton touring as Lions, and a further five Irish half-backs picked for the summer tour: Paddy Jackson, Joey Carbery, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Cooney, there were very few obvious losers in this squad for this position.
Incoming Munster scrum-half James Hart will be disappointed Cooney was handed a chance to impress ahead of him, while Ian Madigan's impending transfer from Bordeaux to Bristol appears to have changed nothing regarding his international exile.
Winner: Rory Scannell
After a fabulous campaign, Munster inside-centre Scannell will view the tour as a chance to lay down a marker in the 12 shirt with Robbie Henshaw away with the Lions.
The 23-year-old was in and around the squad both for the November Tests and the Six Nations, but will now finally get a chance to earn his first cap.
A consistent member in Erasmus' Munster team, Scannell played 23 games for his province this season and will look to provide Ireland with something different in the centre; a second kicking option.
Loser: Stuart McCloskey
A year and a half ago McCloskey was making his Ireland debut against England at Twickenham in the 12 shirt after a barnstorming campaign for Ulster.
That remains his only cap however, as the 6'3" centre has not been called up by Schmidt since, missing out on four consecutive Ireland squads now.
Winners: Rory O'Loughlin, Jacob Stockdale
For uncapped pair O'Loughlin and Stockdale, this tour represents a chance to get into camp for the first time and make a big impression on Schmidt.
Though Leinster academy back O'Loughlin has played in the centre as well, he has thrived when on the wing this season. Ten tries from his 16 starts represents a phenomenal total and saw him make the squad ahead of team-mate Adam Byrne.
Stockdale is a yardage monster. Another to have played for the Ireland U20's during their 2016 run to the final, the 21-year-old Ulsterman has notched nine tries from 18 appearances this season, as well as having made 24 clean breaks, beaten 37 defenders and made 858 metres.
Loser: Darren Sweetnam
One of the biggest shocks from the squad was the non-inclusion of Munster wing Sweetnam. Supreme in the air and rapid along the ground, the Cork native has enjoyed a real breakthrough season under Erasmus.
Up until December 26, he had featured in every single Munster fixture until a knee injury suffered against Leinster ruled him out for six weeks and took away his Six Nations chance.
Sweetnam recovered and worked his way back into the Munster team, competing with Andrew Conway for a spot on the right wing.
Having finished the season as one of Munster's standout performers though, he can count himself mightily unlucky not to be on the plane.