Eamonn Sweeney: Grand Slam win gave us answers aplenty but rigorous schedule will ask new set of questions
The great thing about Ireland's Grand Slam campaign is that it couldn't have gone any better. Not only did the team win all their matches, they also displayed an unprecedented strength in depth..
In a recent interview, the first thing Joe Schmidt picked out as pleasing him was the excellent form in training of Ultan Dillane which confirmed the Connacht man as another option in the second row. You suspect this kind of thing is much on the mind of a manager who knows a successful campaign in Japan depends on Ireland's ability to overcome the kind of setbacks which dogged the team three years ago.
Options abound. At full-back Rob Kearney remains under threat from Jordan Larmour, whose performance against England suggests he's quickly adjusting to international rugby. Kearney's performances in the second half of the Six Nations, his best in a number of years, illustrate the salutary effects competition can have on a player previously regarded as an automatic choice.
Only injury seems likely to cost Jacob Stockdale or Keith Earls their places on the wing. Yet Andrew Conway would have been close to being selected for the France match but for injury and can come into contention again. Darren Sweetnam's omission from the squad for the Six Nations was a surprising setback in a career which had seemed on the up. He was, after all, man of the match in the November win over Fiji and he can re-establish his claims.
In the centre, Schmidt will have the enviable task of choosing between Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and, before too long, hopefully, a fit-again Chris Farrell. Johnny Sexton will start at out-half as long as he's playing, but the days when an injury to the number 10 could completely sink the ship have gone. Joey Carbery is already a capable deputy and will only get better.
The one irreplaceable cog in the machine would seem to be Conor Murray who doesn't have an understudy of comparable ability. Kieran Marmion is currently the man in reserve, but Luke McGrath has the greater potential in the long run. An extended Leinster run in Europe this year can help him make his case.
Before the Six Nations began, Tadhg Furlong would also have seemed indispensable, yet his absence for the Welsh game saw Andrew Porter come of age as an international. The 22-year-old is a player of enormous potential. Nothing sums up Ireland's strength in depth like the front row, where the shadow trio of Porter, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath looks a world-class unit in itself.
A couple of months ago there were concerns about possible weaknesses in the second row. James Ryan's extraordinary debut season has assuaged most of those worries. With Iain Henderson back on form, Devin Toner still around and the intriguing Tadhg Beirne moving from Scarlets to Munster, this area now looks pretty well stocked.
But it's nothing compared to the cornucopia of riches which is the back row. It seems strange to suggest that Dan Leavy might be dropped after being one of the outstanding players in the Six Nations. Yet that may well happen when Sean O'Brien returns from injury. 'The Tullow Tank', as he showed on the Lions tour, is a genuinely world-class player. Then there's Josh van der Flier, who seemed poised for a breakout year before getting injured against France. We might have expected to see more of Jack Conan in the last couple of months and he has the potential to make the same kind of impact as Leavy. Jordi Murphy looks rejuvenated and Rhys Ruddock will be back to join the queue behind Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander.
Perhaps the one team member we really can't replace is Schmidt. His eventual appointment as All Blacks boss seems inevitable. Right now Leo Cullen and Andy Farrell seem the most likely successors but neither is quite the equal of the incumbent. The longer Ireland hold on to Schmidt, the brighter the future.
It's striking how little time the Grand Slam heroes have to rest on their laurels. There are the big European dates for Munster, Leinster and Connacht ,and in June a tour of Australia which should test the team in ways the championship did not. Then, on November 17, the All Blacks hit the Aviva. Chances are that when the next Six Nations rolls around some reputations will have burgeoned and others diminished.
You couldn't imagine a much more rigorous programme. It will be fascinating to see how Ireland cope with it. In the past, summer tours tended to get a bit lost amid the GAA championships, major soccer tournaments and Olympic games. But the trip Down Under will be as interesting as anything happening in the rest of 2018.
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