Alan Quinlan: Ireland's second-row selection a major conundrum ahead of the Six Nations
Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30
While I'm sure Joe Schmidt has been busying himself at the drawing board since the World Cup, the next few days are his first opportunity to meet with his squad since that defeat to Argentina.
The Ireland coach will have plenty to say about the way their World Cup campaign ended in disappointment, but he'll be keen to draw a line under that experience too, and to look ahead to the challenges facing him and his team.
It's only five weeks until Ireland open their Six Nations campaign with a home game against Wales and I'd imagine Schmidt has spent plenty of time mulling over his squad while chomping on the turkey and sipping a festive drink.
There were some positives from the Christmas interpro games but a few more injuries to key players won't have sent him home from Limerick and Galway too happy last week. Top of his problem list will be the second-row, or more accurately, the lack of second-row options. Gone is his totemic leader Paul O'Connell to retirement, and his groomed successor Iain Henderson won't be back for a few months either. Dan Tuohy is injured, while Donnacha Ryan is also struggling with form and injury. It leaves a large portion of responsibility on Devin Toner's plate.
But looking at the Leinster second-row, you get the feeling he is going to relish that challenge. I was very impressed with the way he fought back to regain his place at the World Cup after being dropped in favour of Henderson.
Over the years he has played alongside some excellent locks in O'Connell, Brad Thorn, Leo Cullen and will have learned from all three, but the challenge of being number one, and of leading the lineout under the pressure of big international games, is a great one.
I think he'll excel though.
I expect we'll see a handful of second-rows called into Schmidt's training squad, but the experience of Mike McCarthy and his recent impressive form will likely see him start against Wales if Ryan is injured.
Eighteen months ago Dave Foley was in super form and on the verge of forcing his way into the Irish side for the November internationals, where he picked up a man of the match award on debut against Georgia. He'll get a chance again, but he needs to be ready to take it when it arrives.
Another option is Connacht's Aly Muldowney. Despite being born in Scotland, Muldowney can play for Ireland immediately if selected, due to his Irish granny, while his team-mate, Ultan Dillane, who has been hugely impressive this season, is certainly one for the future.
While the second-row is a real conundrum for Schmidt, the opposite is the case with the back-row. Even with Peter O'Mahony out injured, what a vast array of talent Schmidt has at his disposal.
The big talking point will be CJ Stander's inclusion in the squad, and in the Munster skipper Ireland have a real gem in my opinion. As a ball-carrying back-row he is almost single handedly giving Munster go-forward ball at the moment.
His statistics are incredible, he rarely fails to get across the gain line, he has improved his game hugely in the last 12 months and has started to add great footwork and offloads to his game as well.
Without O'Mahony to call on, I suspect Schmidt could play Stander as a blindside flanker, a role which he can play just as well as at the back of the scrum. If he goes that way it will also afford him the chance to retain Jamie Heaslip as No 8 with Sean O'Brien at seven. I think Heaslip will come under pressure from Stander in the coming months when O'Mahony gets back fit and that will keep him on his toes.
The thought of that trio in the Irish back-row really excites me. With O'Brien suspended and O'Mahony injured, Ireland really lacked that abrasive ball-carrying against Argentina, but now with Stander, O'Brien and Heaslip there is huge potential there.
Rhys Ruddock is another guy that is pushing hard to force his way into the team - he was awesome at times against Toulon and I'm a huge fan of his. He too has a natural ability to carry the ball, but he is also a real athletic back-row and his dynamism is a real strength in that Leinster side.
Chris Henry has missed a few games through injury of late, but he'll be keen to lay a marker down against Munster today.
He faces the returning Tommy O'Donnell - who has made a remarkable recovery - in what looks like a battle to be O'Brien's back-up, but I expect both players to play big roles in the months to come.
Loosehead prop is another place that Ireland are spoilt for choice in, but injuries have thinned the deck a small bit in the last few weeks. James Cronin was the form prop in the country until his ankle injury against Leinster and will be hugely disappointed to miss his chance again, while Connacht's Denis Buckley was in contention for inclusion until he had surgery on his ankle.
Leinster tell us that Cian Healy would have been fit to play last night against Connacht only for his disciplinary hearing in London, but you'd have to say he has slipped behind Jack McGrath in the pecking order since his injury.
When you come back from a long-term lay-off, it can take a long time to retain your peak fitness, and it seems that Healy is still working his way back to his previous standards.
Maybe after missing out so many times, this can be Dave Kilcoyne's chance to push for inclusion.
We saw against Leinster that he makes a huge impact when coming off the bench, and I know that he has been working hard on aspects of his game that Schmidt wanted him to improve. He's is another hugely powerful ball-carrier, but today is a big test for Kilcoyne to show his skills on the scrummaging front against Ulster's Wiehahn Herbst.
Under Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan, I always liked to see young players brought into the squad to see how the international game operates, and thankfully Schmidt has continued that pattern.
I suspect we won't hear about it, but there will be two or three young lads in there just to get that vital experience.
Lads like Kyle McCall in Ulster, Niall Scannell in Munster, Dillane and Eoghan Masterson in Connacht, Ross Molony in Leinster would thrive in that environment and ready them for a likely call-up in the years to come.
With plenty of changes in personnel likely in the years to come, it won't be long before we need these guys to make that step up.