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Brennan's brief How many Ireland players will Gatland pick in his Lions squad and will Jonny Sexton be one of them?

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Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton during Leinster rugby squad training at UCD in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It only happens one day every four years – but it will happen on Thursday.

The yelps of delight or howls of anguish when a player you think is a cast-iron certainty to go on the Lions Tour does or doesn’t make the touring party.

Lions coach Warren Gatland is about to name his 36-strong squad, with Ireland hoping to have at least a quarter of the travelling party for eight matches, three of them Tests, in South Africa in July and August.

There’s also a match in Murrayfield against Japan before the squad leaves these shores. But the total of nine outings still makes it the shortest Lions Tour ever and that is reflected in only 36 players being chosen, instead of the 41 that Gatland brought to Australia and New Zealand in 2013 and 2017 respectively.

This year’s Six Nations campaign leaves Gatland with lots of thinking. Wales won the Triple Crown, England did the ‘reverse’ Triple Crown, losing to Scotland, Wales and then Ireland. Andy Farrell’s Irish side eventually finished second of the four countries whose players are eligible for the Lions Tour.

And after a couple of Lions trips where there was just a token one or two chosen, Scotland now have seven or eight really strong candidates for a seat on the plane.

Since he was Welsh coach as recently as 18 months ago, you have to suspect that Gatland will favour a Welshman in a tight call.

England’s Six Nations efforts don’t deserve many of the 36 places, but England have several big physical players whom you will need against a monstrous Springbok pack. And, as Leinster found out last Sunday, muscle still wins rugby matches.

For me, Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong and Tadhg Beirne will gain selection. In the next line of fire are Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander and, of course, Johnny Sexton.

Will all of that last six get picked?

I doubt it, as Ireland could also be represented by the likes of Keith Earls, who can play at full-back, on either wing and in the centre if needed. And one from left-field is hooker Ronan Kelleher.

If Andy Farrell had picked Kelleher to start all of Ireland’s 2021 internationals, I think he’d now be a certainty. But Farrell kept favouring Rob Herring. Is anybody talking about Herring as a possible Lion this summer? No.

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And would Warren pluck Simon Zebo from exile in Paris? To bring the ‘Z’ factor, never mind the ‘X’ factor, to South Africa.

But the biggest Irish call is clearly on Sexton. He’s the best ‘10’ in the four countries, but he has just missed too many games of late and you know those hulking Springbok flankers, in the provincial teams, never mind the national one, would target him with tackles.

Gatland could just pick Finn Russell (Scotland), Dan Biggar (Wales) and Owen Farrell (England), with the later offering himself as a centre too.

Would he dare risk leaving Sexton behind?

Yes, Warren has done it before, remember he left Brian O’Driscoll out of the matchday squad for the decisive Test in Sydney in 2013.

All will be revealed soon and then the arguments can begin.

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