JOE SCHMIDT THIS afternoon named a 35-man squad for the first two rounds of the Six Nations.
View the full squad here.
Schmidt has opted for four uncapped players in this group, with CJ Stander, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier called up. Each of them deserves their shot at international rugby.
Stander’s form for Munster over an extended period of time has been exceptional and his ball-carrying and big work rate seem suited to Test level, while 22-year-old van der Flier provides Ireland with a thrilling prospect at openside.
McCloskey is another man who looks ready to impose himself in green, while Dillane has been doing so all season in a Connacht jersey. One linking factor between these four players is their physical power, but the skill level is uniformly strong too.
Stander and McCloskey would seem the most likely to be capped in the opening rounds, but all four will benefit from the experience of working closely with Schmidt and his coaching team.
Garry Ringrose and Denis Buckley might count themselves as the most unlucky uncapped players to miss out, though the Leinster centre only made his first European start last weekend and the Connacht prop has just returned from injury.
It was never likely that Schmidt would make sweeping changes to his squad to usher in a new era of Irish rugby, but the energy his four uncapped players and the less experienced men like James Cronin will bring should be important.
Equally as crucial will be the core of highly-experienced leaders Schmidt has retained, the men who will aid Rory Best’s new job as captain.
Jamie Heaslip continues as the squad’s vice-captain, while the likes of Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble will be standard setters for the squad.
Schmidt has largely kept faith with his World Cup squad – Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Chris Henry will come back into contention in the later rounds of the Six Nations – although back row Jordi Murphy has dropped out of the picture for now.
The range of options available to Schmidt in the backline is exciting for all Irish rugby fans. Paddy Jackson’s form means he is genuine competition for the 10 shirt, although it would be a huge shock to see Johnny Sexton sidelined.
In midfield, McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne are all strong options. The return of Ulster’s Luke Marshall, who has suffered horrendously with injury and concussion in recent years, is also hugely welcome.
Will Fitzgerald be used on the wing? Andrew Trimble is deservedly back in the frame out wide, while Dave Kearney and Keith Earls have both picked up form on the wing recently too. Simon Zebo and Payne may be interesting options at fullback, along with incumbent Rob Kearney.
Whatever way Schmidt opts to fit those pieces together for the clash with Wales, Ireland will be fielding a strong back division.
Tight five task
The retirement of Paul O’Connell meant the second row was always going to be a major concern for Schmidt going into this championship.
Devin Toner has experience on his side, but the form lock is 34-year-old Mike McCarthy. Munster’s Donnacha Ryan has just returned from injury and hadn’t hit the form he is capable before being sidelined. Dillane has no Test rugby experience.
Toner looks the nailed-on starter, with McCarthy’s aggression or Ryan’s dynamism alongside him, and Schmidt will need those men to hit their very peak if the Irish pack is to thrive.
In the front row, tighthead stalwart Ross is missing, so it is finally time for one of Marty Moore or Tadhg Furlong to step up to the plate, with Nathan White lending his experience. At loosehead, the quality of Jack McGrath is reassuring, while James Cronin is a fascinating back-up option.
Rory Best at hooker can be depended on, of course, but the opening two rounds will see Ireland’s tight five come under extensive pressure.
“We want to keep building on what we’ve managed to do. Obviously I think the primary thing for us, and in the eyes of the players and coaching staff, is to defend our Six Nations title.
“That’s the thing that’s directly in front of us and that’s what they’re focused on. I think that’s the starting point for us, to go out there and defend that. I think that’s probably the most important thing in front of us at this point in time.”
Those were the words of IRFU performance director David Nucifora last month when asked about the expectations for Ireland in 2016, while Wales coach Warren Gatland has already declared Schmidt’s men favourites for the title again this year.
Three in a row would be something truly special for this group of players, but the impression is that Wales are in a strong place and that Eddie Jones’ arrival in England will bring about a bounce effect from a powerful and skillful squad.
France under Guy Novès will be an interesting proposition, particularly with a batch of new faces, meaning the outlook for Ireland in this championship is uncertain. Three in a row would be an incredible achievement.