Squad strength indicates Ireland ready to compete
Surprises were at a premium when Joe Schmidt named his Six Nations squad on social media yesterday evening as the Ireland coach kept his selection consistent with November and added a few form players.
Despite their strong displays in Paris last Sunday, Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan were always unlikely to get a call-up for the tournament as a result of their decisions to leave the Irish system, while Tadhg Beirne will have to wait for his chance despite committing to Munster.
Instead, Quinn Roux was recalled to the squad ahead of Ulster's Kieran Treadwell, joining Fergus McFadden, Rory Scannell, and Sean Cronin in making their return after missing out on selection in November.
Perhaps John Cooney can count himself unlucky, but there won't be too many quibbles based on recent form.
Jordan Larmour is the only new face in the 36 and his call-up is deserved after a series of stunning displays in the blue of Leinster.
Unsurprisingly, the eastern province once again dominate the squad with 18 of the 36 players named hailing from the European high-fliers.
Players from other provinces can hardly complain after Leinster re-affirmed their dominance in the pre-Christmas derbies.
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Schmidt will assemble his players in Kildare next week ahead of the tournament which kicks off against France on Saturday fortnight.
The Stade de France is no place for experimentation and the coach is expected to pick along expected lines for the opener against a team operating under new coach Jacques Brunel.
He is without a number of front-line players, perhaps most significantly Sean O'Brien and Garry Ringrose.
The absence of the 'Tullow Tank' opens a debate on which Leinster player will join Munster pair Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander in the back-row, with Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier battling it out.
All three are in form and bring different strengths and the decision may well come down to the opposition's abilities as much as that of the players.
Schmidt has kept faith with the trio of stars from the U-20 World Cup final team of 2016, meaning James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale remain in the set-up and none of them are just there for experience.
Stockdale is likely to start in Paris, Ryan is pushing for a bench spot and John Ryan's struggle to get into the Munster first team may open the door for Porter to join him.
Schmidt and Greg Feek may want to wait a week until the home game against Italy given the recent memory of Tadhg Furlong's difficult afternoon in the defeat in Paris two years ago. Not that it did him any long-term harm.
Furlong and Rory Best are shoo-ins in the front-row but there will be discussion over who will join them from the start.
Cian Healy held the edge in November and is enjoying an excellent season, but his latest suspension for foul play won't have gone down well with Schmidt.
His absence gave Jack McGrath a concerted run in the Leinster No 1 shirt and the St Mary's man looks back to his best. Dave Kilcoyne has done little wrong in Munster either.
The second-row selection will be interesting after Devin Toner lost out to James Ryan for the final November game against Argentina.
The big man was also left out of the final Six Nations game against England last season and needs to play well. It is just a case of how quickly Schmidt wants to blood Ryan, who is still generally a bench option for Leinster.
Behind the scrum, it is mostly a case of who will sit on the bench behind Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. Joey Carbery could return from injury this week and is in a straight shoot-out with Ian Keatley for the No 22 shirt despite not having played since November, while Kieran Marmion is likely to remain ahead of Luke McGrath, who is playing well.
With Ringrose out, there will be little debate as Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw will be in the centre, while the back-three is likely to be made up of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Stockdale, who lit up the Guinness Series.
The back-three cover spot is up for grabs, as is the hooker reserve which Cronin should take on form after a strong response to missing out in November.
Brunel named his squad yesterday too and there were some notable absentees in the form of Louis Picamoles and Baptiste Serin.
The new coach and his ideas present a challenge to Schmidt who places such faith in analysis of opposition, but there is a strong look to the Irish squad.
Learning from last season's false start is the next step.
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