As Declan Kidney prepares to name his squad, Hugh Farrelly says the November series is a perfect chance to mix in-form talent with the heavyweights in a World Cup dress rehearsal
ALL things considered, the first seven weeks of the Irish rugby season have gone pretty well.
The combined challenges of injury issues, the micro-managing of international players and a couple of horrendous Heineken Cup draws had led to forecasts of a 'holding' season for Irish rugby -- low on trophies, high on World Cup influence.
However, while all four provinces have had their off-days, they have come through well. Munster top the Magners League, with an unbeaten Ulster a point behind them in third, while Connacht have a five-team buffer between themselves and their customary berth on the basement floor.
In the Heineken Cup, Leinster and Munster are in control of two of the toughest pools in that competition's history and Ulster are still well in with a shout in an eminently more manageable group.
The league will continue to trundle along but, with a promising start to the season acting as a foundation, we can turn our attention properly to international matters for the first time since last summer's unfairly maligned tour of New Zealand and Australia.
Three defeats, and particularly the nature of the loss to New Zealand, generated a stream of dismissive reviews from back home but that arduous journey proved to be worthwhile and significant. The performances and style of play carried signs of encouragement, while the spate of injuries and withdrawals gave opportunities to a host of players who would not otherwise have been used, allowing Ireland coach Declan Kidney and his management team to glean invaluable information.
Kidney names his squad for the November series today and it is likely to feature a clutch of players who came through strongly on that tour. While it would be easy to announce a "come all ye" squad of around 45 players and take the pressure off the various selectorial and omission issues, it is expected that around 34-35 names will be released.
The intention appears to be to treat November as a dress rehearsal for Ireland's World Cup 2011 Pool C schedule. It is a smart approach to replicate the type of tournament intensity they will experience in New Zealand, with every player getting game time over a similar four-week period.
Thus, it makes sense to select from the group of players that Kidney intends to use in New Zealand and we should not expect too many surprises. However, there are players who would not have been in the reckoning before the Six Nations who have come into the mix after strong starts to the season.
The knock-on effect of this is that there is the possibility that John Hayes, the stalwart of the Ireland set-up for 10 years, could find himself surplus to requirements. Hayes' contribution to the cause over the course of 102 caps has been immense and the lack of depth at tight-head was the reason his career has been extended until after the World Cup.
However, Hayes turns 37 four days before the first November international against South Africa on November 6 and has been passed out by the vastly improved Tony Buckley. And, now that there are other viable options -- Mike Ross and Jamie Hagan have held their hands up in a big way this season -- it would make sense to look at the alternatives now.
The areas of strength for Kidney are the back-row and outside backs and Johne Murphy is another player to have kicked on from his summer tour and one whose versatility would be ideally suited to next month's requirements.
Geordan Murphy has been going as well as ever with Leicester and with Andrew Trimble and Gavin Duffy in good form also, it could mean no room for the likes of Fionn Carr, Darren Cave or Fergus McFadden.
Ireland go into the November series on the back of a five-game losing streak, made up of Test defeats to Scotland, New Zealand and Australia as well as friendly defeats to the Barbarians and NZ Maori.
In this context, a four-game examination against the Springboks, Samoa, the All Blacks and Argentina represents a daunting challenge and Ireland need to emerge with something tangible to build on.
A squad that combines established heavyweights and in-form up-and-comers seems like a good way to go.