Tony Ward picks his starting XV and subs for the Scotland showdown. Has he got it right?
Leinster playmaker must pip Jackson for bench spot after Wolfhounds heroics
That All Black epic seems like an eternity ago. We can hear the sound of bagpipes coming in the distance as Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson (the SRU are patiently awaiting Vern Cotter's arrival from Clermont Auvergne) steers the opposition we must never take for granted into view.
All pre-tournament evidence suggests a home banker to get the Six Nations under way but therein lies the biggest obstacle for Joe Schmidt and Ireland ahead of Sunday's eagerly awaited kick-off. From rank outsiders against the Kiwis to red-hot favourites next time out ... that is pressure, no matter how much we look to play it down.
All attention turns now to the new head coach's thinking and his soon-to-be declared hand.
Of necessity, there must be two changes to the XV from November, with Tommy Bowe and Sean O'Brien succumbing to injury. In addition, Declan Fitzpatrick and Kevin McLaughlin have slipped off the radar from the match-day 23 on duty that memorable day.
While there is no doubt that injury offers opportunity to others, any team deprived of the services of Bowe, and O'Brien in particular, is going to feel it. Pushed to name our world-class players, these two would be at the top of my list.
However, given what we witnessed from the Wolfhounds at Kingsholm on Saturday, there are genuine grounds for optimism for the Championship – if the form, hunger and spirit of the shadow squad is anything to go by.
I played in a couple of these fixtures in my time. The original of the species in the mid-70s was confined to uncapped players, designated 'B' status and most definitely a trial opportunity to be grabbed in search of involvement in the real thing.
Whether carrying 'B', 'A' or the Wolfhound moniker, the shadow internationals had lost their lustre somewhat in the intervening years but, on recent evidence, the purpose is back.
Schmidt and Les Kiss cannot but have been impressed as their stated mission "to increase the strength and depth of squad" looked well and truly under way.
Against the England Saxons, on their home patch in trying conditions, there was a unity of purpose, a sense of camaraderie and yet still individual ambition on view.
Dave Kilcoyne, Iain Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Robin Copeland (what a great signing by Munster), Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw and Fergus McFadden were the standout performers on a day when most of the 23 delivered the type of attitude Schmidt and Wolfhounds coach Anthony Foley craved.
This wasn't just a spirited win, but one built on real substance. Had Freddie Burns crossed in the corner on the last play and followed it up with the conversion it would have been daylight robbery. The Wolfhounds made that little bit of late luck because they ran and tackled themselves silly for it.
Simon Zebo, a surprise omission from yesterday's 34-man squad for Scotland and Wales, did well upon his return, with the out-of-sorts Craig Gilroy one of the few to perform below his proven standard.
The bottom line sees the head coach presented with selection issues not apparent prior to kick-off at Kingsholm – at tighthead, one second-row, openside and right wing.
By extension, decisions there will impact upon the bench. Cian Healy will be at loosehead and on the basis he maintains discipline (no red mist) and fitness, he takes over the reins for guaranteed forward momentum from the Tullow Tank.
Rory Best will be at hooker with Mike Ross alongside, although the latter is now under pressure from Leinster clubmate Martin Moore.
Paul O'Connell will wear No 5, with a decision to be made between Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy and Henderson (outstanding in Gloucester) as to who replaces Donnacha Ryan at No 4.
It is a big call but I admire Schmidt greatly for going with the unlikely combination of Toner and O'Connell to start against the All Blacks. I see no reason for changing that thinking now, although McCarthy and Henderson (Dan Tuohy too) are very much back in the mix.
In the back-row, Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip are nailed on.
Of course O'Brien will be missed but on the basis of balance and chemistry, it looks a straight call between Chris Henry and O'Donnell.
There is also the option of shifting O'Mahony to No 7, with either Ruddock or Copeland at No 6. Murphy (increasing in impact by the game) offers cover at six, seven and indeed eight, although not yet in the middle of the back-row at this level.
It is a fascinating conundrum given the input of all four (Ruddock, O'Donnell, Copeland and Murphy), and Henderson too, against the England shadow side. But it would be O'Mahony, Henry and Heaslip the starting unit for me.
Beyond that, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be the half-backs, with Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll alongside.
Rob Kearney too picks himself at full-back, with the in-form Luke Fitzgerald on his left.
On the right wing, in the absence of Bowe, a big call awaits between the ultra-consistent Dave Kearney and the back-from-injury McFadden. Kearney the younger has done so much right and precious little wrong for province or country this season, but McFadden has that little bit over his fellow Leinster man at the highest level.
As for the replacements? There will be some amount of late-night oil being burnt out Maynooth way.
Sean Cronin should be the replacement hooker, with Jack McGrath at loosehead, leaving the inexperienced Moore the shadow for Ross.
In the second-row, the call should be between McCarthy and the extremely athletic Henderson, while O'Donnell and Copeland battle it out to complete the forward cover.
At scrum-half, Boss surprisingly misses out, leaving Leinster team-mate Eoin Reddan as the only No 9 in the 34-man squad behind Murray.
Out-half is a huge issue again. So good was Madigan against the Saxons that a place must be found as an impact sub.
Unless Paddy Jackson were to start (which he will not) then the case for Madigan in reserve (to Sexton) is overwhelming.
The Leinster out-half was magic on legs in Gloucester. And on the same impact logic, I would have gone for Zebo despite (much like McFadden) him being short on game time.
SIX NATIONS SELL OUT BOOST TO GRASSROOTS
The Six Nations tournament is absolutely vital to Irish rugby, as the national team is the financial engine which funds the whole of the Irish game.
Nearly 85pc of the IRFU's close-on €70m turnover is generated around the team through TV, gate receipts, sponsorship, corporate hospitality, marketing etc. It is therefore a huge boost that the upcoming three games are all already sold out.
According to Padraig Power, commercial and marketing director in Lansdowne Road: "The RBS Six Nations is the biggest revenue-generating opportunity as we only have two or three home matches (in the competition) each year.
"It is vital they are sold out and we maximise every possible income stream. We have sold out over 152,000 tickets across the three games. We live in very challenging economic times and we are very grateful to our customers and supporters who are coming to the matches."