Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Ireland's title defence rests on the fitness of key figures'
Familiar feel about squad but injury cloud hangs over stars ahead of England opener
The glow of Ireland's most successful calendar year continues to loom over Joe Schmidt and his team as they face into their Six Nations title defence.
Yet with 16 days and a full round of European games to come before they take on England at the Aviva Stadium on the opening weekend, the coach will be conscious that a host of his regulars come into the tournament under an injury cloud.
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Between the warm-up and the match itself, the Argentina game on November 10 claimed Robbie Henshaw and Seán O'Brien who haven't played since, while Kieran Marmion and Jack McGrath were sent for surgery after helping the team to beat the All Blacks.
Iain Henderson was sent for thumb surgery after Ulster's European games against Scarlets before Christmas, while Johnny Sexton has been stood down with a knee tendon issue since the December 29 clash of Munster and Leinster and Rob Kearney has been nursing a quad problem.
Sexton's fellow vice-captain Peter O'Mahony picked up a rib injury against Gloucester last Friday, John Cooney pulled out of Ulster's clash with Racing with a back spasm, while Luke McGrath's knee injury rules him out of the tournament altogether. Dan Leavy's calf keeps him out of the initial squad, but Schmidt remains hopeful he'll have a role to play.
Apart from McGrath and Leavy, the other players were all named in the Six Nations squad yesterday and, barring fresh injuries after the Champions Cup games this weekend, will travel to the Algarve on Monday for the pre-tournament warm-weather camp. Away from the prying eyes of media and fans, that closed camp will afford the New Zealander an opportunity to truly gauge the health of his squad.
On paper, they look in rude health but given the front-loaded nature of the tournament schedule he'll need to have his preferred line-up on the training pitch next week.
Some of those will get a chance to prove their fitness this weekend, others won't get that opportunity.
It is a tricky run of games for the Grand Slam winners to negotiate and it does not favour players who come into the competition needing game-time or coaches looking to experiment.
Traditionally, the odd years when France and England visited Dublin were seen as the opportune time to strike, but Scottish and Welsh improvements have turned that theory on its head. Seven days after England visit the Aviva Stadium, Ireland go to Edinburgh where they lost last time around.
Gregor Townsend's team are in Ireland's World Cup pool and have Italy in round one, meaning they can target a real tilt at the holders.
Then, there is a week off and an open session at the Aviva ahead of the trip to Rome before a sojourn in Belfast and a final fortnight that sees France visit Dublin and Ireland finish away to Wales on Saturday, March 16.
Last year's last-gasp success in Paris was a reminder that the importance of momentum is more than a cliché when it comes to this tournament and Ireland will be loathe to cede any ground to Eddie Jones' men who they comprehensively beat at Twickenham last year. So, Schmidt must balance his selection with form and fitness at the forefront of his decision.
Yesterday, he named 38 players in his squad and name-checked a further 26 options who had missed out in what he described as "tough calls".
Most of the debate that followed surrounded the calls around the third-choice out-half and hooker and the fifth-choice locks and centre which may have ramifications for his 31-man World Cup squad but are hardly likely to have a major impact on the tournament to come.
Connacht trio Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell are rewarded for a fine season at provincial level with deserved call-ups, even if Ross Byrne in particular will be devastated to miss out after winning two caps in November.
Barring a scenario where the injury issues deepen, it seems unlikely that the new faces will get on to the pitch in the next nine weeks.
The experience will be beneficial, but the stakes are high and the pecking order is established at this stage of the four-year cycle.
As ever, Schmidt has pored over footage of every game to make his decisions and he'll have called each disappointed player to explain his reasoning. The message will be clear to the likes of Rob Herring, Quinn Roux and Byrne: play well and you can still force your way in.
With the window of opportunity narrowing before Japan, Schmidt must be ruthless in his preparation.
Some will call for experimentation during the tournament, but he'll see merit in going into the World Cup on the back of a successful Championship.
Throw in the carrot of going to No 1 in the world rankings with a series of wins and there is every reason to go at this tournament full throttle.
With England up first, there's no other way. Schmidt will be hoping his players' bodies can handle it.
Rúaidhrí O'Connor's predicted ireland team to face England
R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; P O'Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, T Beirne, S O'Brien, J Cooney, J Carbery, R Henshaw.