Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will name his 2017 Six Nations squad on Monday as Ireland will attempt win their third Six Nations title in the last four seasons after back-to-back championship wins in 2014 and 2015.
Last year Schmidt named an extended 35-man squad that included the previously uncapped CJ Stander, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey, while the year before the New Zealander named a 46-man squad that included the uncapped Jack Conan and Nathan White.
Schmidt seemingly always brings in uncapped players into all of his Ireland squads, and Monday’s announcement should be no different.
Here are five uncapped players that we think could be included when the 51-year-old names his squad.
1. Adam Byrne
Byrne has been in fantastic form since breaking into the Leinster team in November and boasts an impressive tries to games ratio, scoring 17 tries in 22 career starts for the Blues.
A tall, strong ball carrier, Byrne has all the attributes and skills needed to succeed in international rugby, he just needs the opportunity and a consistent run of games without injury, which has been easier said than done throughout the early stages of his career.
With Luke Fitzgerald retired, Tommy Bowe omitted from the last Ireland squad and Simon Zebo potentially ready to make the international switch to fullback, Byrne is primed for an Ireland call-up.
2. Rory O’Loughlin
Similarly to Byrne, O’Loughlin has been a revelation ever since breaking into the Leinster starting XV.
Adept at both centre and wing, O’Loughlin has carved out a steady role for himself on Leinster’s left wing and he’s wasted no time out there, racking up 542 metres on the ground in the Pro 12 and 13 clean breaks, leading Leinster in both categories.
O’Loughlin and Byrne will face stiff competition from Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, but they have both built very compelling arguments for inclusion.
3. Niall Scannell
The first of two Scannell brothers to feature here. The elder, Niall, has been playing some great rugby as of late and could be set for an Ireland call-up after news broke earlier this month that Leinster hooker Sean Cronin will miss the entirety of the Six Nations with a hamstring injury.
Schmidt named three hookers in last year’s Six Nations squad and you have to figure that the Ireland coach will name Scannell alongside Leinster’s James Tracy and captain Rory Best in this year’s squad.
4. Rory Scannell
After a slow start to the season, Rory Scannell is really starting to build some momentum in the Munster midfield and could be set for an Ireland call-up with Ulster’s Jared Payne still out through injury.
Scannell will face fierce competition from Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey but could be preferred to the Ulsterman due to his role as a distributor and the presence of his expansive kicking game.
Although he didn’t feature in the November series, Scannell was a late call-up for the Australia game and one has to figure that Schmidt has only been more impressed by what he’s seen from the 23-year-old since then.
With Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose virtually guaranteed places, and with McCloskey and Luke Marshal both underwhelming the last time they wore green, Scannell is as good as a bet as any for inclusion in this year’s squad.
5. Jake Heenan
Heenan is probably the least likely of the five mentioned here to be named in Schmidt’s squad on Monday, however the Connacht flanker has developed a steady reputation as one of the most underrated players in Irish rugby.
The New Zealander qualified for Ireland last summer, but such is the competition for places in the Irish backrow the 24-year-old is still waiting for his first Ireland cap.
Heenan has repeatedly expressed his desire to represent Ireland over the course of his time out west, however he may have to wait until the summer before he gets a more realistic shot of making his international debut, which most figure will be sooner rather than later.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
In this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, we speak to the Pro12 Communications Manager Adam Redmond, who outlines how the league will evolve in the coming seasons.