Ireland's top 50
WITH the season concluding on a high, it is now all about the World Cup and whether the latest crop of players can finally produce a productive campaign for the national side in rugby's marquee competition.
And the indications are favourable. The season had its share of low points -- Munster's European woes and Ireland's early Six Nations difficulties chief among them -- but with the continued excellence of veteran performers such as Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Rory Best, Shane Horgan, David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan and Gordon D'Arcy, allied to the emergence of fresh talents like Conor Murray and Nevin Spence, the prognosis is positive looking down the road.
There is also a middle tier of players such as Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Andrew Trimble and Jamie Heaslip who are now firmly established as quality internationals with long careers still ahead of them. Throw in a scrum that can now be depended upon and, hopefully, the successful reintroduction of the injury afflicted (Jerry Flannery, Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney, Tomas O'Leary) and Ireland coach Declan Kidney has the raw materials to make an impact in New Zealand.
Picking the top 50 Irish performers from 2010/11 is no easy task and is complicated by differing levels of exposure, but that in itself is a healthy indicator.
1 SEAN O'BRIEN We expected a big season from the Tullow man -- but not this big. O'Brien was explosive for Leinster and Ireland, picking up a host of man-of-the-match awards as well as being named European Player of the Year. An automatic selection for the World Cup, with the only issue being where to select him -- the general consensus is to put him on the blindside flank.
2 jonathan sexton The out-half had a wonderfully assured season and, on the really big days (against England and in the Heineken Cup knockout stages), Sexton raised his game to an entirely new level. His performance in the European final against Northampton was truly extraordinary, backing up inspirational words with action to the tune of 28 points.
3 mike ross Arguably the single most important player for Ireland's World Cup campaign, with Ross at tight-head, Ireland finally have a scrum they can depend on. The ultimate technician, Ross' dependability allows others to flourish around him and he has worked hard on his loose game to good effect. All he needed was game time.
4 ronan o'gara Superbly consistent, at 34, O'Gara is as essential to Munster's well-being as he was in his breakthrough season 12 years ago -- as he showed with that beautiful cross-kick for Keith Earls' decisive try in the Magners League final. Had an excellent Six Nations to boot and Ireland head to the World Cup with out-half strength that is the envy of most of the contenders.
5 brian o'driscoll Given the punishment he has taken over his long and storied career, O'Driscoll's continued powers of inspiration emphasise his status as the greatest player this country has produced. Despite being troubled by a knee injury, Ireland's captain rounded off his season magnificently. A good rest and he has the opportunity to add a successful World Cup to his glittering CV.
6 fergus mcfadden Despite failing to nail down a place with his province or country, McFadden produced big performance after big performance across the three-quarter line, exhibiting power, pace, intelligence and skill. Has to travel to New Zealand.
7 david wallace The ultimate professional. Now in his mid-30s, there are no signs of Wallace's powers waning. Excellent in the Six Nations and Munster's man of the match in the Magners League final.
8 leo cullen The man oozes presence and it was no coincidence that Cullen's return from early-season injury coincided with the upturn in Leinster's fortunes. Calm authority in the second row was backed up by industrious play all over the park. Has a big role to play at the World Cup.
9 jamie heaslip Stalled by a rare injury problem but the Kildare man proved once again what a big-game player he is, from captaining Leinster to a seminal victory over Munster in October to terrorising England in the Six Nations. At the peak of his powers and will head to New Zealand ready to right a few wrongs.
10 mike mccarthy Still under the radar but McCarthy was immense for Connacht this season, playing all 22 Magners League and six Challenge Cup matches. Superbly athletic and versatile, if he gets the chance to prove himself in August he can book his place on the plane to the World Cup for the second/back-row slot.
11 james coughlan Munster's Player of the Year is an example to every AIL player with the dedication to chase ambition. Played 25 times for his province and was as effective in May as he was in September.
12 cian healy Gets better every year. Nothing fazes the young prop, who continues to profit under the scrutiny of Greg Feek at scrum-time and is a phenomenal presence in the loose. Excellent campaign.
13 donncha o'callaghan A very productive campaign. Continues to work hard on his disciplinary issues and relishes the nitty-gritty work that is essential to any team he plays for. Ireland are well served in the engine room.
14 rory best South Africans dominated the headlines up north but, while he had to battle injury concerns, Best was a totemic presence at hooker and a solid performer for Ireland in Jerry Flannery's absence.
15 keith earls Overcame worrying injury issues early on in the campaign and from the middle of the Six Nations was in electric form. Can give Ireland an attacking edge at the World Cup.
16 Shane horgan No slow wind-down for the veteran winger, who had his best season in years (26 matches, nine tries) for Leinster, passing the 200-appearance mark and putting himself firmly back in the World Cup mix.
17 jamie hagan Massive loss for Connacht, Hagan's consistency in the scrum and power in the loose could find a home in the World Cup 30 and needs to be nurtured at Leinster next season.
18 gordon d'arcy Rebounded from the missed tackle against France in the Six Nations to produce a string of compelling displays and was a key figure in Leinster's march to European glory.
19 nevin spence Looked completely at home when making the step up to Heineken Cup level. The poster boy for Ulster's flourishing Academy.
20 Shane jennings Along with Cullen, a massive presence for Leinster, as his second-half introduction against Northampton proved. Driven to succeed, Jennings would add to Ireland's efforts in New Zealand and will be hoping his arm injury won't hamper his preparations.
21 paul o'connell Given his prolonged absence through injury and suspension, O'Connell's influence on the season was remarkable, culminating in his fantastic contribution in the Magners League final. Fresh from the lay-off, the Munster colossus is ready to explode upon the World Cup.
22 eoin reddan Slick and confident for Leinster and Ireland, Reddan should travel to the World Cup as Ireland's first-choice scrum-half.
23 isaac boss Dovetailed beautifully with Reddan for Leinster, adding that extra back-row, physical edge in attack and defence.
24 conor murray Burst on to the scene with the spring blossom and immediately looked at home as a top-drawer professional. Lack of experience counts against an Ireland call-up, but what a season.
25 tom hayes Earned rave reviews for his consistent effectiveness in the Exeter Chiefs' back-row to the point where he has been linked with an England call-up.
26 felix jones Recovered from a horrible injury to bring an extra dimension to Munster's attacking play. Wonderful willingness to attack from full-back and defined by his bravery in defence.
27 tommy bowe The Ospreys had a typically frustrating season but Bowe remains a quality, versatile presence in their backline and a world-class finisher on the right wing for Ireland.
28 kevin mclaughlin Another to bounce back from injury with a series of big performances and played his part in Leinster's Heineken Cup surge. Smart, physical and a good line-out option, McLaughlin will push McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan for a World Cup role.
29 fionn carr Connacht's most dangerous attacker and arguably the most lethal finisher in the country. Used his pace and evasion skills to score some superb tries on the left wing.
30 willie faloon Injury and Afrikaners affected his capacity to contribute to the Ulster back-row but when Faloon played, he made his presence felt. A quality openside.
31 gavin duffy Had claims on a Six Nations role when Ireland were struggling for full-back security and a leading figure for Connacht whose utility qualities place him in the World Cup frame.
32 dominic ryan A serious talent who stood up to the challenge of Heineken Cup rugby when called upon by Leinster. Equally at home at six or seven, international elevation seems a matter of when rather than if.
33 james downey A go-to carrier in Northampton's drive to the Heineken Cup final. Lacks subtlety in midfield but the big centre does what he does extremely well.
34 jonny o'connor A massive influence for Connacht along with the likes of Michael Swift, O'Connor's feral displays at openside harked back to his international breakthrough seven years ago.
35 ian humphreys Will never be a destructive defender but Humphreys is a supremely talented footballer and, although ignored early in the campaign, when Ulster hit their purple patches it was Humphreys pulling the attacking strings at out-half.
36 sean cronin Incredibly dynamic in the loose, Leinster look set to use Cronin and Richardt Strauss on a Reddan/Boss basis next season. Continues to work on his tight game but should be in New Zealand in September.
37 roger wilson Like Downey, Wilson is out of the Ireland picture but a key figure for the Saints who reminded everyone of his qualities with an excellent display in the Heineken Cup final.
38 gareth steenson Another Ulster man playing in England, Steenson stood out in Exeter's fairytale debut Premiership season. A tidy operator at out-half and superb place-kicker.
39 eoin o'malley An exciting midfield talent who provided a cutting edge whenever called upon by Leinster and proved in Clermont that he has the stomach for battle to go with his jinking abilities.
40 donnacha ryan Second-row is clearly Ryan's best position but his height and power was used to good effect in the Munster back-row too. Could do a job in New Zealand.
41 andrew trimble Injuries continue to dog the Ulsterman but his hard running was well utilised by Brian McLaughlin and had a good day against Chris Ashton in Ireland's final Six Nations outing.
42 mick o'driscoll One of Munster's great contributors over a career dating back to the late 1990s and a comforting presence in O'Connell's absence. A World Cup campaign cannot be ruled out.
43 brett wilkinson With his ability to prop on both sides, Ireland could use Wilkinson in the autumn and the South African-born prop had a good season for Connacht. Needs to be tested in August.
44 john hayes The season seemed to have passed by the old warrior, but the 37-year-old finished spectacularly. Rounding off the campaign with an excellent 80-minute contribution and penalty try could ensure a third World Cup for Hayes.
45 denis leamy Stood up as stand-in Munster captain early on but lost out to Coughlan as the season progressed. Some excellent contributions off the bench but under pressure to make the World Cup squad.
46 rhys ruddock Intense competition limited his opportunities in the Leinster back-row but Ruddock was still able to give indication of his potential -- a frightening physical specimen.
47 david kearney Again, limited exposure due to the back-three strength at Leinster but, in his 13 appearances (six off the bench), the younger Kearney showed his attacking potential, picking up four tries to boot.
48 damien varley Stepped up for Munster with Flannery injured and was excellent around the park while working hard on his scrummaging. If his line-out issues were sorted Varley would be a World Cup certainty.
49 luke fitzgerald Tough season for Fitzgerald as he battled fluctuating fitness and form but his class is evident and, though not at his mesmerising best, Joe Schmidt's loyalty was rewarded with some superb cameos -- notably his fantastic try against Ulster in the Magners League semi-final.
50 peter stringer No longer the go-to scrum-half for Munster or Ireland, Stringer's zeal remains undiminished, as does the bullet-pace of his passing -- has a third World Cup in him.
SEASONS TO FORGET
Tomas O'Leary -- Was never right due to injury but could still be first-choice Ireland scrum-half come September.
Tony Buckley -- Exposed by the Ospreys, usurped by Ross, and on his way to Sale.
Jerry Flannery -- Cursed by injury, Flannery's recovery in time to make the plane to New Zealand would be a massive boost.
Rob Kearney -- Badly missed in the Six Nations but fit again and can still have a meaningful 2011.
Stephen Ferris -- Mostly missed out on Ulster's best season in years due to knee issues.
SIX FOR THE FUTURE
Danny Barnes -- Shone against the Ospreys and stood up well to O'Driscoll in the Magners League final.
Mike Sherry -- Looks to have the right stuff at hooker for Munster.
Ian Nagle -- Wonderful display against Australia, should come on again next season.
Craig Gilroy -- Has lots of pace and youthful enthusiasm out wide for Ulster.
Eoin Griffin -- Talented young Connacht centre profiting from Eric Elwood's guidance.
Simon Zebo -- When Doug Howlett does move on, Munster could already have a home-grown replacement.