Putting their hands up
As Declan Kidney prepares to name his autumn internationals squad, European form will be a big influence
THEY have done the mileage and watched the games and, today, Declan Kidney and his brains trust will assemble to pick through the Heineken Cup action and decide their squad for next month's Guinness Series. Tomorrow, they announce their decision.
How much will European form play into their discussions? All four provinces remain in contention after the opening two rounds, but Ulster are the only side to show the form of a team who might actually win the European Cup as Leinster and Munster stutter.
Ireland assembled last month for a two-day session at Carton House, with 39 players coming into the frame after being picked for the initial squad or being drafted in to replace injured players. Thirty-seven of those came from Ulster (13), Leinster (12) and Munster (12) -- with Connacht's representation limited to Mike McCarthy and Ronan Loughney.
Hamilton will loom large over everything this November. It will take something special against South Africa in 18 days' time if Ireland are to completely move on from their humiliating 60-0 defeat to New Zealand in June.
As it stands, of the 22 players who were involved on that fateful night, only Sean O'Brien is definitely out, while Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara and Declan Fitzpatrick are battling with injuries. A defeat of such scale should see heads roll but, given the resources available and Kidney's history of standing by his men, it is unrealistic to expect the axe to fall.
Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Felix Jones are among those who are back in contention, while Tomas O'Leary's form for London Irish means that he is a live option for selection once again.
Having watched all four provinces in recent weeks, what will Kidney, Gert Smal and Les Kiss have ascertained?
The European champions have won both of their games, but have yet to truly perform this season. An injury crisis hasn't helped, but they need to click soon if the three-in-a-row is to become a reality.
Heaslip has shown a real return to form alongside Kevin McLaughlin, whose three starts in New Zealand appear to have boosted his confidence. Richardt Strauss should join his fellow front-rowers, Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Sean Cronin in the mix. D'Arcy's display on Saturday will have impressed the watching Gert Smal, while Ian Madigan's form at full-back increases the likelihood that he will be back-up out-half if O'Gara's hamstring injury does not heal in time.
Room to improve
Jonny Sexton will start against South Africa, but he will need to put his performance against the Scarlets behind him. A series of woeful mistakes could have had more of an impact had his opposite number, Rhys Priestland, not had even more of a nightmare.
Shane Jennings has never been a favourite of Kidney's, but the openside has been immense for Leinster this season. With O'Brien out, he is a live option but doesn't appear to have the trust of the coaching ticket.
Rob Penney probably would have taken one win and two bonus points from the Reds' first two games, but his side took a hammering after their defeat to Racing Metro and were far from impressive for long stretches against Edinburgh.
O'Connell put lingering concerns about his fitness to one side with a barnstorming display on Sunday, while Peter O'Mahony looks favourite to claim the Ireland No 7 shirt despite the fact that he has been playing at No 8 for his province. Behind the scrum, Simon Zebo has looked impressive.
Room to improve
Conor Murray produced a restorative performance last weekend, but the memory of the Stade de France may haunt him for some time as he recommences his battle with Eoin Reddan for the Ireland jersey. Ian Keatley showed flashes, but Madigan's call-up ahead of him for the training squad was telling. Donncha O'Callaghan spent far too much time on the wing against Edinburgh, while Mike Sherry and Damien Varley look behind their Leinster rivals in the queue for the No 2 shirt.
Most Munster fans would have been drawn to names like James Downey and Casey Laulala when their new squad was confirmed, but it has been Scottish-born former Ulster openside Sean Dougall who has made the greatest impact since joining, scoring a try in each of their European games so far. O'Mahony may get the nod ahead of him, but he should be in the frame for the Fiji game at Thomond Park.
The pick of the bunch, Mark Anscombe's side have yet to lose this season despite a change of coach and the impact of the Nevin Spence tragedy. They are playing good rugby and their additions have bolstered an already formidable unit.
Bowe has settled back in well, while Darren Cave has put himself in the frame and Dan Tuohy has impressed in the second-row. Rory Best looks as good as ever, while Tom Court has been his reliable self in the front-row.
With Ferris struggling and the second-row options looking limited, youngster Iain Henderson could be a bolter after his involvement in the camp.
Room to improve
No one doubts Ferris' ability, but once again we are left wondering about his fitness going into an Ireland meet-up. After some barnstorming displays, the Lions flanker missed both of his province's Heineken Cup clashes.
Paul Marshall may have lost his place to Ruan Pienaar last Friday night, but his display against Castres marked him out as a live contender for the Ireland scrum-half jersey.
The nippy No 9 never got a minute on last year's tour and was left out of the original training squad last month, but deserves better than just a sub's appearance against Fiji.
Hammered Leinster, got hockeyed by Ulster, failed to impress against Zebre and then were heroic in defeat against Harlequins. Connacht have captured the imagination at times with their back play, but are finding consistency difficult to achieve.
Only two of their players featured in the training squad and Kidney looks unlikely to parachute many into his squad to face South Africa.
McCarthy is in the running to partner O'Connell, while Kieran Marmion should at least be in with a shout for scrum-half.
But it appears likely that Connacht's best chance of involvement will come against Fiji.
Room to improve
Loughney was called ashore before half-time against Ulster at Ravenhill and, having featured against the All Blacks last summer, the prop needs to show more, with others returning to fitness.
With D'Arcy now 32, and Brian O'Driscoll and Paddy Wallace 33, we are not far off a year zero moment in the centre positions in Ireland, and the lack of depth appears frightening. Step forward, Dave McSharry, who has been massively impressive so far this season. A physical carrier with deft hands, he should see action against Fiji.