THIS week will see Declan Kidney naming his Irish squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship campaign.
An otherwise average Autumn series culminated in an excellent performance and victory against the Argentinian Pumas, and with this season's Six Nations the precursor to the British and Irish Lions' tour Down Under, an exciting and highly competitive tournament will be expected from all avid rugby followers.
The November victory against Argentina saw Kidney field a number of young and inexperienced players from the outset. Excellent performances from the likes of Simon Zebo, Chris Henry, Craig Gilroy and Mike McCarthy left Irish rugby followers excited about what the future may hold. A number of key injuries may well have forced the coach's hand in selection, but the men he chose to replace his injured warriors certainly delivered.
Last weekend's round of European Cup fixtures saw the return to competitive action for a number of Ireland's experienced campaigners. Influential centre Brian O'Driscoll (pictured below in the RDS last Saturday), dynamic full-back Rob Kearney and freescoring winger Luke Fitzgerald all wore the blue of Leinster. Hooker Rory Best returned to the Ulster front row, while fellow Ulster man Stephen Ferris has targeted some level of participation in this season's competition.
With the return of these key players, Kidney will have to make a decision whether to reinstate these proven internationals or continue with the new breed of player who performed admirably in November. Personally, I have no doubt that if Brian O'Driscoll comes through Leinster's European fixtures unscathed, he will see himself retain ownership of the number 13 jersey.
Unfortunately for the exciting and unpredictable Munster full back Simon Zebo, Louth man Kearney may well also find himself recalled to the full back berth.
Of the returning players I believe the aforementioned duo are the only two who will be guaranteed a starting place for the fixture against Wales on the opening weekend. Of the remaining players who produced a number of consistent performances throughout the Autumn series, Chris Henry is probably the most likely to miss out.
Due to the injury sustained by Tommy Bowe whilst in action for Ulster, provincial teammate Gilroy should continue his meteoric rise on the Irish wing, while McCarthy will undoubtedly continue in the Irish engine room alongside Munster man Donnacha Ryan.
The 2013 Six Nations may well bring Kidney's reign as Irish rugby's general to a conclusion. His loyalty to certain players and dated game plan has come in for severe criticism in the past 12 months and he may well use this season's competition to continue the blooding of young Irish players and experiment beyond what we have come to expect from him.
Personally I believe it is imperative that Kidney takes an open-minded and experimental approach to the Six Nations, but only time will tell.