This weekend’s Champions Cup action gave us a glimpse of some of the players who have been out of the Irish side for quite a while now. But while these players will be looking to grab the attention of Joe Schmidt ahead of the Six Nations, there are plenty of others that are hanging by a thread to a potential spot in the national squad.
1. Mike Ross
It may seem like a slightly knee jerk reaction but Mike Ross failing to feature in Leinster’s two most important games this year must surely worry the burly number 3. At a time when Ireland were in need of a steady tighthead following the retirement of John Hayes the former Cork Constitution man came in and held the scrum together.
It would have been inconceivable to imagine Ross being left out of the Leinster squad or indeed the Irish squad back in Novemeber but Martin Moore’s return from injury means Ross has a serious fight on his hands. The 23-year-old has been superb in the games against Castres and Wasps and is surely the front runner for the Irish number 3 jersey ahead of the Six Nations opener against the Italians.
Matt O’Connor couldn’t even find a spot for Ross on his bench for the last two games such has been the impressive form of Tadgh Furlong who now looks to be Moore’s direct rival.
Time is not on his side and it is difficult to imagine the 35 year old travelling to the world cup at this rate.
2. Tommy O’Donnell
There was a time not so long ago when it appeared there was a seemingly unstoppable conveyor belt of brilliant Irish back rows coming through. Then it appeared to dry up somewhat and the retirement of Stephen Ferris, coupled with Sean O’Brien’s injury woes left us slightly short.
The Munster man was a good option a year ago when we needed a strong ball carrier to come in off the bench and make an impact. His versatility across the back row also made him an attractive option from the bench but his star has waned slightly this season. His form has been patchy and with Rhys Ruddock grabbing his chance of staking a claim for the Irish number 7 jersey in November it leaves O’Donnell in the shadows.
O’Brien’s imminent return and the solid performances of Jordi Murphy coupled with the emergence of Jack Conan has packed the Irish side with potential back row options and O’Donnell may find himself as the man on the outside looking in.
3. Eoin Reddan
While there isn’t a scrumhalf in Ireland that comes close to the level of Conor Murray, the battle for the spot as his deputy is an interesting one. Reddan has been filling that role for a number of years now but age is catching up with him, as are his competitors for the second choice scrumhalf berth.
Kieran Marmion of Connacht earned his first caps in November of last year and his performances for Connacht this year are one of the main reasons they are flying so high. With physicality that matches Murray’s and the sharpness around the fringes that is reminiscent of Peter Stringer the 22-year-old looks set to be a mainstay of the Irish squad.
Reddan has also found competition closer to home following the strong displays off the bench of Luke McGrath. Much of the talk around Leinster is concerns whether it is finally time to let McGrath take the reigns of the number 9 jersey for good and it seems only a matter of time.
Schmidt seems to like Marmion and he looks favourite to take the reserved seat on the bench.
4. Gordon D’Arcy
What a servant he has been to both Leinster and Irish rugby. He will be 35 when the Six Nations begins and his performances in the past year have done little to suggest that he is defying the hands of time.
D’Arcy has been out of favour at Leinster for the most part this season and Ian Madigan’s performances at inside centre have consigned the Wexford man to a spot on the bench. Schmidt faces a selection headache for the number 12 jersey. He may well opt to start D’Arcy to help guide Robbie Henshaw through his first six nations.
The other possible options include moving Madigan out there once Johnny Sexton returns or even shoehorning Henshaw into first centre to accommodate either Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne or Keith Earls into the 13 jersey. Stuart Olding’s long term injury means he won’t get a chance to stake his claim during the Six Nations, however Luke Marshall may be an option if he can string some good form together for Ulster in the coming weeks.
5. Jared Payne
Payne was touted as a potential replacement for Brian O’Driscoll only a few months ago but a number of factors since his debut against South Africa have left question marks over his overall involvement with the squad.
Henshaw looks almost certain to wear the number 13 jersey for the upcoming championship and for years to come and Rob Kearney will not be ousted from the full back position. The superb form of Luke Fitzgerald means he looks the best option to replace Henshaw in the event of injury and Keith Earls gave us a reminder of his qualities last weekend.
Fitzgerald and Earls also have the advantage of being equally adept in either centre position, on the wing or at full back so they offer well rounded options from the bench for Schmidt.