The Six Nations championship is just weeks away, and excitement is building.
Who will Joe Schmidt select to lead Ireland into the new World Cup cycle? With memories of that defeat to Argentina still lingering, Schmidt and Co. will be eager to reclaim their crown as kings of Europe, but some poor performances from the provinces leave question marks.
Following Munster’s exit from the Champions Cup, Ulster are the sole Irish side with hopes of progression in Europe’s elite competition.
Indeed, the respective performances of Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson this weekend have got a lot of people talking, and there are suggestions that the Ulsterman could feature for Ireland in the Six Nations.
Here at Pundit Arena, we decided to make Mr Schmidt’s job a little bit easier, and have ranked the Irish fly-halves in contention for a Six Nations berth.
1. Jonathan Sexton
What was all that talk of a demise? The Leinster out-half was back to his best on Friday night against the Ospreys, winning his personal duel with Dan Biggar and solidifying his status as the best 10 in the Northern Hemisphere.
Yes, he has struggled at times for Leinster this season, but just three months ago he was revered as the best fly-half in the sport, and France gave him special attention in attempting to injure him.
All great players struggle for form at times. Indeed Dan Carter was somewhat in the doldrums in the run-up to the World Cup. Sexton appears to be hitting form in time for the Six Nations.
2. Paddy Jackson
Yesterday afternoon, Ulster were dead and buried. 23-0 down at halftime, their European hopes hung by a thread. A penalty over 50 metres away was awarded with three minutes left to win the game, and it was thought they might go down the line.
Would Ruan Pienaar with his big boot take it on? Jackson did not hesitate. He stood up and slotted it over.
Jackson’s recent form and consistent game-time dictate that he should be included in Ireland’s match day 23.
3. Ian Madigan
Madigan is not getting consistent time at fly-half, and is rightly moving to France. While it has been said that this will damage his selection opportunities with Ireland, he will benefit from consistently starting at 10.
He remains a quality operator, and Bordeaux have bagged themselves a top player. However, reservations about his ability to perform at the highest level remain, and next season cannot come quickly enough.
4. JJ Hanrahan
Since leaving Munster, Hanrahan has thrived for Northampton, and is a perfect example of how consistent game-time can improve a player. The Kerryman is not likely to feature for Ireland this spring, but if he continues upon his upward trajectory, he could have a major role to play in this World Cup cycle.
5. Ian Keatley
As it stands, Keatley might not even be the fifth choice for Ireland. 11 months ago, he was selected as Ireland’s out-half in the absence of Sexton for the Six Nations game against Italy.
2016 paints a different picture for Keatley. He has been at the heart of Munster’s struggles, and needs to get his head in the right place to crawl back to his former heights.
Perhaps relinquishing kicking duties to Rory Scannell would be helpful to start off with.
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