NOW that the Champions Cup has been firmly put to bed, attention turns to the Six Nations Championship with a new head coach Andy Farrell in place who has some tough calls to make.
It could be a whole new style of play from Ireland style but the selection policy with the new coaching team would appear to be conservative, just as the last one was.
Picking a 34 year old as your captain doesn’t send out the right signals to the younger players in this squad but you feel there could be method in the decision to give Johnny Sexton the armband.
There is no doubt that Sexton has been an incredible servant to Irish rugby and has earned the armband on merit.
Maybe it is something the player wanted in the twilight of his career but picking somebody who is not going to be around for the next World Cup makes little sense at first glance.
His selection as captain, though, suggests Farrell wants to hit the ground running this year in the Six Nations and next season he will probably name his captain for the next World Cup.
Sexton’s selection will have a steadying influence in the short term and with the way Ireland finished their World Cup campaign that is not a bad idea.
And you could look at some of the selections he has already made as either ballsy or fool-hardy.
Farrell said of his get together at Christmas with the squad that form would be rewarded.
Niall Scannell hasn’t hit the heights he hit during last season but the same could be said of others that will start against Scotland.
Starting with a win will be key for Ireland in this Six Nations given where their confidence must be after Japan and having an experienced hooker would have been a good starting place. Scannell has more internationals caps than the three hookers in the current Ireland squad combined.
As unlucky as Scannell can feel, you’d have to feel even sorrier for Rhys Ruddock and Stuart McCloskey although the latter received a late call up on Monday for camp in Portugal.
McCloskey’s display against Munster, one of the meanest defences in Europe, wasn’t enough to get him into the trimmed down squad but his late call up should be seen as a positive.
Whether he gets into the matchday squad remains to be seen. Ruddock must be pulling what’s left of his hair out given his recent form.
On the other side of the coin, Farrell can point to Jack McGrath, Jack O’Donoghue and Billy Burns as players who are in the squad based on their recent form.
If form is being used as a yardstick, then Bundee Aki, CJ Stander and Conor Murray can consider themselves lucky to be in the squad, although the latter’s display on Sunday suggests their form is heading in the right direction.
None of the trio have been near their best since their return from the World Cup and even after Sunday’s display, you feel that Murray of the trio is the one in most danger of losing his starting place.
He played well against Ospreys at the weekend, probably his best game since his return from the World Cup, but still off the standard of 2018.
His form has been improving steadily bit by bit but John Cooney will be the starting nine if Farrell is being true to his word on form; Cooney hasn’t just put his hand up, he has kept it up.
The omission of Jean Kleyn could suggest one of two things. Either Farrell intends to play a far more expansive game with running/breaking second rows with Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Ultan Dillane all fast over the ground or Kleyn is paying the price for a team that was in a form slump and is playing poorly as well as giving away a game-changing penalty against Racing last Sunday week.
So what is Farrell’s first team going to look like.
Peter O’Mahony could very well be on the bench with his place taken by provincial team-mate CJ Stander with in-form Josh van der Flier and probably Caelan Doris at eight and O’Mahony to come in and fill any of those three spots as deemed necessary.
On form, John Cooney should be the number nine with Sexton outside him but after Sunday that decision became tougher for Farrell.
Dave Kilcoyne has been in outstanding form for Munster, but Farrell will stick with Cian Healy at loosehead with Rob Herring and Ronan Kelleher fighting it out for the No 2 jersey.
Tadhg Furlong will be a shoo-in for tighthead.
Second row is not so simple with club-mates Ryan and Toner the likely choice in second row or Farrell may opt for Henderson/Ryan.
The likely centre pairing will be Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw given their form for their province and again the coach is going to have to make some tough choices in his back three.
Full-back will be between either Jordan Larmour or Will Addison. Addison’s display for Ulster at the weekend certainly didn’t do his chances any harm while Conway is another player who could take a provincial colleague’s place with Keith Earls being the cover for the back three.
Again Farrell, coming from a defence background, could put Earls on the left flank and leave the defensively poor Jacob Stockdale on the bench.