A weekend of powerful Irish performances in Europe will have given Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt much to think about ahead of the naming of his first Ireland squad of 2018.
Picking an extended panel ahead of the Six Nations next month will be hard enough for the New Zealand native, as shrewd signings and a bumper crop of academy alumni have all joined the fold.
Narrowing that down to a match-day 23 will, therefore, become one of the best headaches coaching staff could hope for.
Over the last 12 months, a veritable windfall of new talent has put their hands up for the green jersey and across practically all fifteen positions, fresh faces are eager to stake a claim for their spot in the side.
Never, it seems, has Ireland been so embarrassed by its riches. In some cases, the back row being just one example, Schmidt has the difficult job of leaving hardened internationals out of the side simply because he doesn’t have room for them.
With the exception of the second row, where Devin Toner and Iain Henderson will almost certainly hold dominion and out-half, where Jonathan Sexton will surely be backed up by the in-form Ian Keatley, it is anyone’s guess just who will make up the match-day 23 come Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France on February 3rd.
While Schmidt will likely have an idea of just who he wants to take to Paris in less than three weeks, a number of provincial stars have made a real case for themselves over the last month or so, none more coming from these five.
Having battled through a string of injuries, the Munster wing stormed back to form last season. Travelling to the USA last summer as part of Ireland’s touring side, the then 29-year-old made it known that he is a weapon that simply cannot be left out of any coach’s arsenal.
This season, the Limerick native has continued to underline his importance where, as recently as this past weekend he showed his unwavering eye for the try line with an irresistible double break against Racing 92, dotting down for five points in another highlight reel moment.
With so many new faces looking for a spot on the wings, Earls, in the form of his life and with over 60 caps to his name, simply cannot be overlooked.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Sean Cronin has had to play backup to Ulster captain Rory Best for what seems like forever.
With nearly 60 international caps, many of which came as an impact sub late on, the 31-year-old appeared to be falling out of favour when Schmidt omitted him from his November international series squad, despite having returned to form with Leinster following injury.
Resounding performances over the Christmas period, however, has seen the hooker prove he still has a huge amount to offer.
His back-row style of line-breaking is the stuff of legend and with just that kind of play on full show in recent weeks, Cronin could not have done to show his worth to Schmidt.
Names like Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway and joey Carbery have been on the lips of Irish fans over the last number of months but ever since his exploits for Leinster since Christmas, only one name has the attention of the rugby faithful.
20-year-old Jordan Larmour has been something of a sensation for Leo Cullen’s side in recent weeks. Such has been his blistering form in the back-line, Cullen saw fit to reward to red-hot talent with a starting spot in his side to face Glasgow in the Champions Cup at the weekend.
Replacing veteran Rob Kearney at full-back, Larmour once again proved he is an absolute terror for defences.
His ability to scythe lines through scrambling lines makes him one of the most potent weapons ever to appear out of the provincial academy set up.
Though still young and inexperienced, this future star deserves his shot in the green of Ireland.
At 26-year-old, Conway’s emergence as one of Ireland’s best and brightest took a little more time than with others but now that he has arrived, he continues to prove himself.
Firmly established in the Munster first team, Conway is fearless under the high ball and invariably makes the ball stick when under pressure.
Versatile across the back line, he can naturally slot into the full-back berth when called upon and this flexibility makes him a real asset in the modern game.
Earning his first senior Irish cap last season during the Six Nations, he was part of the side that decimated South Africa during their November Test.
In a pool of back-line talent, Conway rises to the top.
One of Munster’s best signings in recent seasons, Farrell cuts a seriously imposing figure at outside centre. For so long Irish fans were used to the intoxicating skills and dynamic lines of Brian O’Driscoll. When he retired, the lament was we would likely never see the likes again.
At 6′ 4″ and 17 stone, Farrell certainly cuts a different figure than the 5′ 10″ O’Driscoll and presents a different challenge to opponents. Using his considerable frame he rips holes in defences and sucks in defenders.
Having spent the last few seasons with Grenoble, he has been forged in the fires of the Top 14. Now lining out for Munster, the 24-year-old is just the latest weapon at Joe Schmidt’s disposal.
With these five just a handful of those who have put their hands up for selection this term, Ireland’s rugby landscape is in rude health. Many would argue a case for the likes of Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran, Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey and then Leinster’s Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and even the back in form Fergus McFadden.
While most if not all will make Schmidt extended squad ahead of the Six Nations, there will be those left on the cutting room floor ahead of Ireland’s first match against France.
Those in the mix will find out on Wednesday if they are in with a should of a trip to Paris in the Spring.