If, as he was leaving the Aviva Stadium on November 14, you had suggested to Andy Farrell that he would be going into the Six Nations with 22 of the 23 players who had featured in that day’s win over New Zealand he’d have taken it.
Yesterday, the Ireland coach unveiled a 37-man squad for the tournament and of the men who took down the All Blacks only James Lowe is absent from the list.
A muscle injury rules Leinster’s Kiwi wing out of action, but the presence of Iain Henderson and Joey Carbery soften the blow as the coach prepares to whisk his squad to Portugal for their warm-weather camp next week.
There was always going to be a familiar look to this panel of players.
The wave of postponements that followed Omicron’s emergence meant there was little chance to impress the coach across the Christmas period.
Farrell has chosen 37 players, down one from the last window, and the changes have all come at the fringe of the squad.
Initial alarm about Lowe’s unexplained absence was calmed when the IRFU subsequently confirmed that the winger suffered an injury. It’s understood he pulled up towards the end of Leinster training on Tuesday.
All of the other changes were effectively fiddling around the edges of a strong core of players.
Of those who miss out, perhaps Ciarán Frawley is the hardest done by.
Farrell had six centres in the November squad, but here he goes with four in Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, James Hume and Garry Ringrose. Stuart McCloskey is injured, but the in-form Leinster No 12 is a tough one.
Harry Byrne is left out, but he’s only played 128 minutes for club and country this season and hasn’t played in seven weeks.
Likewise Simon Zebo, who has managed 15 minutes in 14 weeks, misses out.
In their place come Jack Carty who has been excellent for Connacht on a weekly basis, Michael Lowry who was outstanding for Ulster last weekend and Mack Hansen whose early-season form has dipped in recent weeks.
In the pack, Henderson’s lack of minutes – he’s played less than Zebo this year – doesn’t count against him, but Ultan Dillane gets the Zebo treatment as his move to France costs him his place.
Kieran Treadwell comes in ahead of the in-form Ross Molony and Munster’s Fineen Wycherley who were both in the squad ahead of him in the summer.
Otherwise, it’s as you were.
In reality, of the new faces Carty is the only one in with a realistic shot of playing against Wales.
Selecting a team will be tougher than picking the squad, particularly given the number of players who have been affected by cancellations recently.
The starting half-backs, front-row and back-row pick themselves, but Farrell has big calls on the wing, in the centre, in the second-row and on the bench.
Lowe’s spot is likely to go to Keith Earls, but Farrell will wonder if it is time to get Robert Baloucoune into his team.
Andrew Conway would be hard done by, but the Ulster wing has something special to offer.
In the midfield, it’s one of those rare times when Henshaw, Aki and Ringrose are fit. Throw in the in-form James Hume who has been excelling for Ulster and there are decisions to be made.
In the engine-room, James Ryan and Henderson have barely played and Tadhg Beirne must surely start based on his Munster form.
As for the bench? Dan Sheehan could supplant Rob Herring on a permanent basis, while Gavin Coombes and Craig Casey are gunning for their more established Munster teammates Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray.
As for Carty, much depends on Carbery’s fitness but he returns to the Algarve resort where Ireland held their pre-World Cup training camp in 2019 with a real chance of reclaiming his place on the hierarchy.
His return to the fold is a message to the fringe players that redemption is on offer through hard work and good performances.
For those fringe players, there is the promise of much rugby through the United Rugby Championship where Farrell will be hoping the Byrne brothers, Frawley, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy, Wycherley, Molony, John Cooney, Nathan Doak and all the rest channel their frustration.
Some may even earn their way in, but right now this looks like a strong, settled squad capable of doing real damage in the Six Nations.
SIX NATIONS WINNERS AND LOSERS
The Ulster lock won all three of his caps on the 2017 summer tour and has edged out plenty of stiff competition to earn a recall from the international wilderness.
Benefits from James Lowe’s absence to win his first full call-up. Electric with ball in hand, the Connacht winger will have to brush up on his defending.
A joy to watch this season, the diminutive Ulster full-back is a very consistent performer who will offer Ireland a fresh attacking threat from the back-field.
Having rediscovered his form in a green jersey last November, the winger misses out after picking up a muscle injury in Leinster training on Tuesday.
On merit, the Connacht lock would have been included, yet his move to France next season has scuppered his chances as Ireland move on without the Kerry native.
The Connacht man must be wondering what more he has to do to catch the eye, but Andy Farrell has nailed his colours to the mast with his three familiar scrum-halves.
IRELAND SIX NATIONS 2022 SQUAD
Backs (17) – Bundee Aki (Connacht) 33 caps; Robert Baloucoune (Ulster) 2 caps; Joey Carbery (Munster) 27 caps; Jack Carty (Connacht) 10 caps; Craig Casey (Munster) 4 caps; Andrew Conway (Munster) 27 caps; Keith Earls (Munster) 96 caps; Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 12 caps; Mack Hansen (Connacht) uncapped; Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) 53 caps; James Hume (Ulster) 1 cap; Hugo Keenan (Leinster) 16 caps; Jordan Larmour (Leinster) 30 caps; Michael Lowry (Ulster) uncapped; Conor Murray (Munster) 92 caps; Garry Ringrose (Leinster) 37 caps; Johnny Sexton (c) (Leinster) 101 caps.
Forwards (20) – Ryan Baird (Leinster) 6 caps; Finlay Bealham (Connacht) 18 caps; Tadhg Beirne (Munster) 25 caps; Jack Conan (Leinster) 22 caps; Gavin Coombes (Munster) 2 caps; Caelan Doris (Leinster) 12 caps; Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 52 caps; Cian Healy (Leinster) 112 caps; Iain Henderson (Ulster) 65 caps; Rob Herring (Ulster) 23 caps; Rónan Kelleher (Leinster) 16 caps; Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) 45 caps; Peter O’Mahony (Munster) 79 caps; Tom O’Toole (Ulster) 2 caps; Andrew Porter (Leinster) 40 caps; James Ryan (Leinster) 40 caps; Dan Sheehan (Leinster) 2 caps; Nick Timoney (Ulster) 2 caps; Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) 3 caps; Josh van der Flier (Leinster) 35 caps.
Development player – Cian Prendergast (Connacht) uncapped