The Ireland squad for the opening rounds of the upcoming Six Nations jetted off to Spain on Monday for their pre-tournament training camp where, following a weekend of gruelling European rugby fixtures, they can recover from their respective bangs and bruises.
Head coach Joe Schmidt was forced into just one late squad change, with Munster’s James Cronin stepping in for his injured teammate Dave Kilcoyne. Aside from this forced change, it is a case of as you were for Ireland’s squad of 36.
With a February 3 clash with France first up for Ireland, Schmidt and co. will be looking to avoid a repeat of last year’s opening fixture.
That, a 27-22 defeat to Scotland, all but ended Ireland’s ambitions of championship glory and the squad will be keen not to slip up again when they travel to Paris in less than two weeks’ time.
Taking on what will be an experimental and inexperienced France XV, Ireland fans will be quietly dreaming of a record victory in the French capital.
While Ireland ran out 15-point winners in their Rugby World Cup Pool D clash in 2015, in the homestead of French rugby, a mere two points separated the nations on the two occasions Ireland have been victorious in the Six Nations.
Having named a squad full of experience and youthful ambition, Schmidt has the luxury of selecting a match-day 23 that is more than capable of re-writing the record books.
While a vast swathe of the starting XV already pretty much nailed on, the Ireland boss has certainly be given some food for thought following the weekend of European fixtures that the four provinces were involved in.
Already set to occupy the majority of the XV, Leinster and Munster both rubber-stamped their international credentials following their Champions Cup quarter-final qualification.
Munster’s James Cronin, who replaced the unlucky Dave Kilcoyne, gave a barnstorming display from the bench and goes straight into the mix for a place in Schmidt’s first Ireland squad of 2018.
Such was the extent of his endeavours on Sunday that he could well sneak in ahead of Leinster stalwarts Cian Healy and Jack McGrath.
Securing their sixth pool victory and top billing for the Champions Cup quarter-finals on Sunday, Leinster’s Jordan Larmour, Sean Cronin, Rob Kearney, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy reminded the Ireland boss of their credentials as they push to join teammates Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong and Jonathan Sexton in the side to travel to France.
Munster, meanwhile, put on a show of force against Castre and their 48-3 destruction of the Top 14 side saw impressive displays from, in addition to Cronin, Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Ian Keatley, Chris Farrell and Rory Scannell.
In the Challenge Cup, Connacht’s Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Ultain Dillane and Quin Roux all featured in the demolition of Oyannax that secured them a quarter-final berth on Saturday and, in the process, did their prospects of further Ireland caps this spring no harm.
Whether they will feature in Paris on February 3, however, remains to be seen as competition for places is going to be intense and Schmidt has options.
Despite Ulster’s disappointing Champions Cup bow-out at the hands of Wasps on Sunday, Rory Best and Iain Henderson likely did enough to keep their place in Schmidt’s starting XV.
It must be said, however, that if it were not for Best’s position as captain, perhaps Leinster’s Sean Cronin could be favoured at No. 2 following a series of barnstorming displays.
Where much of the selection debate could rage is across the back row, where a ridiculous wealth of riches has emerged this season.
Even with the omission of Simon Zebo, who once again shone for Munster on Sunday, names like Rob Kearney, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery and Fergus McFadden all have a shot at a starting spot.
So, following a weekend of mostly positive fortunes for the provinces and a string of resounding personal performances, just what is the first XV Joe Schmidt will select?
While the actual selection will likely differ to cater for a balancing of experience, perhaps, this is the Ireland ‘In-Form XV’ that should start against France in less than two weeks’ time.
Now, under the watchful eye of the Ireland coaching team, those still battling for their jersey will have less than two weeks to make their statements of intent.
With five grueling Tests over seven weeks, injuries are all but inevitable. Therefore, for those who impress but still come up short, there is every chance they will be called upon later in the northern hemisphere’s marquee rugby championships.