Joe Schmidt gives little away with his opening move
By naming a monstrous 46-man squad Ireland coach is keeping everyone guessing ahead of Six Nations title defence and World Cup
Joe Schmidt stopped short of naming a full deck of cards worth of players in his Six Nations squad, but by picking 46 he wasn't far off.
Those hoping to get a glimpse of the New Zealander's plans for the spring were left a little disappointed by the press release that dropped yesterday afternoon. By naming almost everyone he could, the coach is keeping the rest of us guessing.
While England, Scotland and Wales all held press conferences to go with their national coach's selection this week, the IRFU opted to enter the champions into the northern hemisphere's biggest rugby tournament in stealth mode with a one-quote email.
"The coaching group have tried to strike a balance between some players getting the chance to fully complete their rehabilitation programmes, or get a bit of rest, and others getting the opportunity to push their claims with further game time in the Wolfhounds fixture," Schmidt said in the union missive.
He will have a chance to elaborate at Wednesday's Six Nations launch in London before the wheat and the chaff are separated for the Wolfhounds' clash with the England Saxons in Cork on this day week.
Unlike England, who named a full squad and a Saxons panel, the 46 men are all in the mix for the squad to be coached by Dan McFarland and Richie Murphy at Irish Independent Park.
At the beginning of a World Cup year, the coach has made his first move. But he is keeping his cards close to his chest and his hand won't be forced until he is ready.
So, as we look ahead to the big kick-off in Rome in two week's time, what can be gleaned from the squad?
Wolfhounds cast of stars
Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien's inclusion has raised eyebrows, but it remains to be seen if either of the duo will be able to line out for the Wolfhounds against a strong-looking English side.
The pair, along with Rhys Ruddock, are officially slated for a mid-February return and their inclusion may simply be in order to get them integrated with the squad and up to speed on the multi-layered Schmidt play-book.
Others are almost certain to use the Wolfhounds game to get themselves some game-time.
Mike Ross is short on minutes having fallen out of favour at Leinster in recent weeks, while Jack McGrath's ban means he has been kicking his heals for a number of weeks.
Nathan White is due to return for Connacht this weekend, but needs more time in order to prove his fitness for an international debut and Iain Henderson and Jared Payne are in the same boat for Ulster.
Keith Earls is another in need of game-time - he has yet to start a game since returning for Munster.
The other big call for Schmidt when it comes to the Wolfhounds is to see which of his two fit fly-halves will be selected. Will he give his first-choice for Rome a run-through in the No 10 jersey or wrap him in cotton wool?
Unless Noel Reid is on the bench to provide cover, it seems likely both of the Ians in contention - Madigan and Keatley - are set to be involved.
JJ Hanrahan might have hoped for a run, but Reid was on the Argentina tour and, despite not making Leinster's bigger European squads, appears to hold the edge in Schmidt's thinking.
Experience wins out
Given the number of players selected, it is hard to pick anyone who could possibly feel hard done by, but Leinster pair Luke McGrath and Tadhg Furlong can count themselves a little unfortunate not to be involved.
The presence of Isaac Boss among the four scrum-halves selected shows that, with the World Cup now just months away, Schmidt is leaning towards experience.
Leinster back-row Jack Conan is the only new face in the squad, with uncapped Connacht tighthead White having been involved in the build-up for November.
Conan's form has been excellent this season, but he is also profiting from a lack of option as cover for No 8 Jamie Heaslip, who will be wrapped in cotton wool next week.
Picking Boss, who last played for Ireland as a replacement at Twickenham last season, over the rising McGrath would suggest that the door for this World Cup cycle is almost shut.
Furlong, meanwhile, may have forced his way past Ross in the Leinster reckoning but the Wexford native has a way to go until he can do the same with Ireland.
Boss' fellow New Zealander Michael Bent is back in the Ireland frame after a long absence, with his ability to cover both sides of the scrum edging him ahead of another Kiwi, Rodney Ah You, whose Connacht form has been poor.
The much-maligned Bent's place in the pecking order remains unclear given the need for others to get game-time in Cork, but he has proven very valuable to Leinster in recent weeks and deserves his place.
Centre options open
In the post-Brian O'Driscoll world, the focus remains on midfield and who will wear No 12 and No 13 in the Six Nations.
With 11 players who have played international rugby in the centre in the squad, it's anyone's guess who will play against Italy.
It can be narrowed down to a select few, however, with Robbie Henshaw nailed on to play either inside or outside, with Gordon D'Arcy, Payne and Luke Fitzgerald all vying to partner him.
D'Arcy was left out of Leinster's side to face Castres last weekend, but given the out-half is likely to be inexperienced in Sexton's absence, his years of playing in the Ireland centre could win out.
Fitzgerald is likely to be the people's choice, given his return to form and natural flair. A combination of the 27-year-old and Henshaw is a mouth-watering prospect.
Payne has a fan in Schmidt, but the foot injury he picked up against South Africa leaves him playing catch-up.
The template will remain
The retired O'Driscoll aside, this squad contains all of those who started for Ireland against New Zealand last season - the game that has laid the template for Schmidt's major selections since.
While some faces have changed, the core group remains the same and it could be argued that, if those on the recovery trail prove their fitness, this is the strongest panel he has ever picked from.
Ireland have rarely gone out with the same plan twice under Schmidt, but the trusted lieutenants are called upon time and again.
With elder statesmen Paul O'Connell, D'Arcy and Ross showing signs that age may be catching up on them, there may be a need to change before the World Cup but Schmidt still has faith in his front-liners.
There might be 46 men in the squad, but there are a chosen few within that number and the coach is unlikely to stray too far from them.