Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will announce his Six Nations squad tomorrow afternoon, and there are many questions to be answered.
Will he recognise the form of young Leinster star Garry Ringrose? What of Ulster’s form backs Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall? Will there be room for JJ Hanrahan?
It is just over three weeks until Ireland open their Six Nations campaign at home to Wales, and tomorrow will offer an indication of what the starting team may look like.
Here at Pundit Arena, we feel that all this may stress out poor Joe, so we have put together the team that we would like to see take to the field at Lansdowne Road on February 7.
Of course, this is just one writer’s opinion, and it will cause plenty of debate. Feel free to join in on our designated Irish rugby Facebook page.
15. Robbie Henshaw
Rob Kearney has been less than impressive in recent months, and his struggles have seen him fall down the pecking order for the green jersey. There are calls for Simon Zebo to don the number 15, but defensive and positional frailties have let him down at key occasions.
Meanwhile, Henshaw has continued his superb form for Connacht, and has appeared at fullback on several occasions for Pat Lam’s side this season, most notably in the famous win at Thomond Park. His quality leaves little doubt he would thrive in the position for Ireland, and the switch frees room at the centre.
14. Dave Kearney
While Leinster have struggled, Kearney has shown at times to be back to his best. He was impressive as Leinster fell short against Toulon in the Aviva Stadium, and had the skill to finish off a try from Jonathan Sexton’s cross-field kick against Ospreys last Friday. At his best, Kearney is devastating.
13. Garry Ringrose
Ringrose or McCloskey, McCloskey or Ringrose… Two of Irish rugby’s rising stars are competing for the one spot. But that does not have to be the way, does it? With Henshaw at 15, it paves the way for both youngsters to play in the centre, and Ringrose can continue to build upon his potential against the best the northern hemisphere has to offer.
12. Stuart McCloskey
McCloskey has been in terrific form for Ulster this season, and few would deny that he deserves a call-up straight to the starting XV for the Six Nations. It is a new World Cup cycle, and new talent is needed if Ireland are to challenge in Japan four years from now.
11. Luke Fitzgerald
This writer was tempted to go for a complete new look and put Matt Healy in the side, as the Connacht winger has been immense so far this season. However, perhaps he needs a few more months to prove that he is capable of the step-up.
This leaves a shootout between Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo and Fitzgerald. The Leinster man was one of the few who emerged from Ireland’s World Cup loss to Argentina with credibility, and gets the nod as a result.
10. Jonathan Sexton
Is he back to his best? Leinster’s win over Ospreys last weekend would suggest he is. He has struggled for form in recent weeks, but he is returning from injury. He entered the World Cup regarded as the best out-half in the world. Not a lot of time has past since then, and the Leinster man still stakes a genuine claim.
9. Kieran Marmion
At his best, Conor Murray did not have a bigger admirer than this writer, who suggested that he was the world’s premier scrum-half last year. However, the Munster man’s stock has fallen since, and simple handling errors have cost Munster and Ireland at crucial times.
Marmion does not stand out in games, but does the simple things right. All season, he has provided quick and accurate ball from the base, which is the key for a good scrum-half. He deserves his chance for Ireland, and this would act as a message to Murray that he needs to up his game.
1. Jack McGrath
This side will not be picked on reputation, and over the past season and a half, Jack McGrath has been a better loose-head prop than Cian Healy. The 26 year-old is solid in the scrum as well as in the loose, and can cause the opposition serious problems.
2. Rory Best (Captain)
At 33, it is unlikely (yet not impossible) that Rory Best will be around for the next World Cup. This side needs a new captain, and this is not a decision that should be rushed. In this writer’s opinion, Peter O’Mahony is the man for the job. In the Munster flanker’s absence, Best is a perfect leader for the coming months. He’s not a bad hooker either.
3. Martin Moore
Wasps-bound Moore needs more exposure at the highest level. After ten caps, he is yet to start a test for Ireland. This needs to change in the spring. Mike Ross is 36. Joe Schmidt ought to acknowledge that starting Moore is beneficial in the long run.
4. Devin Toner
The giant second row is the go-to man at lineout time, and why shouldn’t he be? In the absence of Iain Henderson, he is Ireland’s premier second row, and will start against Wales in the Aviva Stadium.
5. Donnacha Ryan
The Munster lock has proven to be a competent operator, and is the main benefactor from Henderson’s injury. He ought to get the nod ahead of Mike McCarthy, and this is an ideal opportunity to prove to Joe Schmidt that he should be a permanent fixture in the Irish second row.
6. Sean O’Brien
In O’Mahony’s absence, O’Brien can move to arguably his best position at blindside flanker. The Tullow Tank is a shoo-in to start, but what position is the question. In a young team, he can act as a leader. That Argentina game showed just how important he is to the team.
7. Chris Henry
Perhaps it would be jumping the gun to throw Josh van der Flier into the starting XV, but the 22 year-old is certainly worth monitoring, with a view to hand him his debut in the 2016/2017 season.
Henry is the standout openside flanker in the country at present, and possesses the tools to put it up to Sam Warburton next month.
8. CJ Stander
Stander had an uncharacteristically poor game as Munster crashed out to Stade Francais last week, but otherwise has been immense all season.
At 32, Jamie Heaslip is passing his prime, and Ireland need a rock at number eight who can be omnipresent and perform consistently for the next four years.
Stander is the man for the job, and his all-round footballing ability is evident in any game he plays.
Do you agree/disagree? Join in the debate, over on our Irish rugby Facebook page.