Ex-Ireland coach has an interesting view on the CJ Stander v Sean O'Brien selection battle
Ireland enjoyed a mixed Six Nations campaign this year and have to follow it with a daunting three-test tour of South Africa in the summer, all of this after competing in a gruelling World Cup.
The autumn tournament and its aftermath took a heavy toll on the health of Ireland's squad - particularly in the pack - with Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy all spending significant time on the sidelines subsequently.
And while the prospect of Ireland winning a single game on the highveld this summer appears remote, at least Joe Schmidt will be able to call on a healthier and deeper pool of players than what was available during the Six Nations.
The increased competition for places will give Schmidt some tough calls to make, especially in the second row and the back row. Will Devin Toner or Donnacha Ryan make way for the rampaging Henderson? And what of the equally dynamic lock, Ultan Dillane?
Likewise, when O'Brien and O'Mahony return, how will Schmidt accommodate that duo while also having the option of the mighty in-form pair of CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip?
The panel on Against The Head on RTE picked their team for South Africa last night, and their was a split decision when it came to the back row. Brent Pope and Donal Lenihan went for the World Cup trio of O'Mahony, O'Brien and Heaslip while former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan feels that Stander's consistently destructive performances deserve to be rewarded in the summer.
"O'Brien I think, actually," O'Sullivan answered when asked who he would drop in favour of Stander.
"You have to keep O'Mahony for his lineout.
"I think Stander would force his way into the back row at the moment. His work rate is superb.
"He has a full Six Nations under his belt and he has delivered in every game."
Pope disagreed with O'Sullivan and thinks that although the South African excelled in his first Six Nations campaign, he is still a level below the competition.
"CJ Stander has had a great debut season but when you look on a world class basis, Sean O'Brien is world class. Peter O'Mahony is world class," Pope said.
Interestingly, Lenihan thinks the selection dilemma involving the powerful back row is at number eight rather than at flanker. Stander is excellent at the base of the scrum for his province and the pundit feels that he will put pressure on the Irish incumbent when the team tours South Africa.
"This is why it is so difficult to pick a team because I would have O'Brien definitely at seven and O'Mahony at six because of the aggression you need in South Africa," Lenihan said.
"The debate for me is at number eight between Heaslip and Stander."
Here is their team for the first test against South Africa:
15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Keith Earls
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray
1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Mike Ross
4. Iain Henderson
5. Devin Toner
6. Peter O'Mahony
7. Sean O'Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip