The Tri-Nations started today, and the Rugby World Cup is looming large on the horizon.
While there is still Rugby to be played in the Southern Hemisphere, one would hope that the Northern teams have a fair idea of their 30-man squads. With only warm-up games to go, not knowing the best team and replacements at this stage would be a worrying sign.
And, of all the Northern Hemisphere sides, the team most likely to make a run at the Rugby World Cup this year has got to be Ireland. France, while on any given day they are a world class side, are in disarray and are utterly unpredictable.
England won the 6 nations but were badly beaten and, being honest, totally outclassed by an Ireland side in the final game who showed real passion, skill and fury. If Ireland play to that level come the World Cup, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
So here is my prediction of the 30 men Ireland will be bringing to the World Cup. I will list them in order, and give a run down of the likely starters, replacements and in certain cases the men unlucky not to make the squad.
Note that this is not the definitive list, merely a prediction. Feel free to agree or disagree below. Enjoy reading!
I reckon Ireland will bring four Props. This is likely to be the weakest area of the squad.
Cian Healy - Starter
A beast in the loose, when he gets in open field with the ball, he resembles a rampaging back-row. This does however belie a serious weakness in the scrum. While he is developing, he is still very young and very raw technically.
At times he can be impressive using his brute strength, but clever older scrummagers such as Castrogiovanni and Tonga'uiha have had their way with him. His loose play is a distinct advantage, but his scrummaging is a worry.
Mike Ross - Starter
Ross is the antithesis of Healy. Barely quick or athletic enough to move out of his own way, he is not an asset in the loose. He crashes adequately, presents the ball well and doesn't get turned over, but he will not run away from anyone. He makes up for it though in the scrum.
He is a fabulous technical scrummager, and has single-handedly shored up what up until the start of this year was a disastrous Irish scrum.
His work against Brian Muljati in the second half of the Heineken Cup final was awesome. If he is fit, the Irish scrum will be respectable. If not, it will be in serious bother.
Tom Court/Tony Buckley - Replacements
Both are average at best in the loose, and both are poor in the scrum. The reality is that they will make no impact to the Irish forwards if brought on. They are, however the best replacement props we have. This is a worry.
John Hayes - Unlucky not to make it
He is severely limited of course, and is now 38 years of age. But having said that, he has a wealth of experience and a prodigious amount of raw strength.
Declan Kidney has consciously tried to move Ireland away from our reliance on Hayes who is almost a liability in the loose but, even now, he is probably a better option in the scrum than either of the two replacements we are likely to bring.
I reckon we will bring three Hookers. This is an OK but not great area of the squad.
Rory Best - Starter
God knows how he has made it this far. Rory Best is the very definition of average. He throws fine, but is inconsistent under pressure. He is competent in the scrum, but hardly an asset. He is a decent but unspectacular defender and he is probably below average in the loose.
He is regarded, however, as a leader in the squad, and through Flannery's injury woes, he has been our regular starter at hooker for a few years now. He is not top-class in any respect, but should still end up sneaking in as the day 1 starter.
Jerry Flannery - Replacement
He appears to be winning his battle with injury and will likely make it to the World Cup. He is better than Best in every way, and is a fine Hooker.
However he has been out of Rugby for nearly two years now and it would be unreasonable to expect him to walk into the team immediately and be able to start. I hope he can compete and, as the tournament progresses, reclaim his jersey, but I would expect to see him on the bench on opening night.
Sean Cronin - Replacement
The young man of the group, Cronin is athletically superior to both of his peers. He is a beast in the loose with back-row speed and soft hands. He is also decent in the scrum as he is surprisingly technically gifted and very powerful.
His throwing, however, is very unreliable at the best of times, and is simply terrible under pressure. A good man to bring on with 10 minutes to go if we are chasing a game and intend on running everything through the hands.
Richardt Strauss - Unlucky not to make it
Ireland's long-term answer at Hooker seems to be the South African-born Leinster player. He has all of Cronin's athleticism and all of Flannery's skill. He is not Ireland eligible until next year, so he just misses out on the World Cup. He is one to watch in the future.
We will bring four locks. This is a strong area for Ireland.
Paul O'Connell - Starter
The big red machine. He is the envy of international teams worldwide. While arguments can be made about Ireland's best player, etc., I think of all Ireland's players O'Connell is the one who would walk into any other team on the planet without so much as batting an eyelid. And I do mean any team.
He is one of the best Locks in the world, and what he gives a team in terms of passion, commitment and motivation cannot be over-emphasized.
Donnacha O'Callaghan - Starter
He is O'Connell's long-term partner in crime in the second row, and is in his own right an excellent player. While I would not rate him as highly as Leo Cullen, he is a great foil to O'Connell and is a world-class player.
He had a huge game against England in the final 6 nations match and should keep his starting role.
Leo Cullen - Replacement
Leinster's Heineken Cup captain is Ireland's third truly world class player at this position. He is a stout defender, excellent at the breakdown and fantastic in the line-out.
He is in my view better than O'Callaghan, but Kidney seems to have decided to stick with Donnacha in the name of consistency and loyalty. He is a first class option off the bench.
Donnacha Ryan - Replacement
This is an outside bet, but I reckon Ryan may sneak in as the fourth Lock. He is a capable option here and is fine cover. He is also a capable option in the back row. It is my belief that Kidney will want at least one player in the squad he can play at either position if need be.
For that reason, even though there are probably better natural Locks and indeed better natural back rows who will not go, Ryan's versatility will get him a place in the 30.
Mick O'Driscoll- Unlucky not to go
He is aging and this is likely his last chance at a World Cup. He is a better lock than Ryan but not by much, and while he has been good for Munster,his recent displays in Ireland green have been very sub-par.
Still for a man with this experience and composure, he can count himself unlucky not to go.
Ireland, excluding Donnacha Ryan, will bring five natural back rows. This is a huge strength for Ireland.
Stephen Ferris - Starter
If he is fit, he has to start. He is the best Blindside Flanker in Europe and is in the conversation for best in the world. He has been plagued by injury but, when playing, is a tackling machine.
He is an outrageous defender, great at the clear out, ferocious at the breakdown and has good ball skills. He will do the dirty work for his back row colleagues and allow their more natural ball carrying abilities to shine. He is a great player.
Sean O' Brien - Starter
With Ferris doing the dirty work at Blindside, O'Brien will be free at Openside to do what he does best. He is a rampaging bull with the ball in his hands.
He has taken Europe by storm with his free-wheeling ways as he has ran over every defense in the Heineken Cup. He will be a revelation at the World Cup to any Southern Hemisphere team who does not know him. He is a fantastic prospect.
Jamie Heaslip - Starter
Ireland's No. 8 is another truly brilliant young player in this exciting back row. He is extremely strong, very quick, sees gaps like a center, and defends relentlessly.
He is more often than not Man-of-the-Match in any game he plays. He has the pedigree to emerge in this World Cup as the premier 8 in world rugby.
David Wallace - Replacement
He can count himself as highly unfortunate that he will not start. He is another world class player and has more experience than any of the starters, but he is a victim of his own strength. He is a ball carrier who has slowed down some in the last few years.
Although he is still an awesome player, he no longer has the pace or physicality to match O'Brien and he is not as gifted at the grunt work as Ferris.
He will be an excellent man to bring on with 20 minutes to go, however, as in that shorter period he could make an immense impact. Don't be in any doubt; he is still an elite flanker.
Denis Leamy - Replacement
He will face stiff competition for this final jersey but he is versatile enough to either play at 8 or as a flanker. This gives him an advantage over Kevin McLaughlin who, although he is a top notch flanker, has not got the same adaptability as Leamy.
This is possibly the single most uncertain of all the jerseys, however. I would expect this position to be one that the warm-up games will go a long way to deciding.
Kevin McLaughlin - Unlucky not to go
Ireland will bring three scrum halves. The starting role will come down to a straight shootout between O'Leary and Reddan. This is an area of depth and strength, but with a conspicuous lack of one truly exceptional candidate.
Tomas O'Leary - Starter
The Munster Scrum Half missed this year with injury but hopes to be back for the RWC. While he is not the best passer, and does not have a relationship with the likely Irish starting 10, he is a big man and an excellent kicker and defender.
He is known for his ability to make a break. He will need to stop box kicking however and focus more on getting the ball to the Irish backs if we are to play to our full capacity.
Eoin Reddan - Replacement
Reddan will give O'Leary a serious run for the starting spot. He is the Leinster starting scrum-half and has a telepathic relationship with Johnny Sexton. He is a better passer than O'Leary and is more suited to dictating a running game.
However, he is not as good an athlete or defender and he was very inconsistent as the Irish 9 in the absence of O'Leary during the 6 nations. For that reason, I would give a slight edge to Tomas.
Peter Stringer - Replacement
Stringer is a fabulous natural passer - the best of the bunch. However he is clearly the weakest defender and he is very limited as an attacking option himself.
He is a small man and is a weak link against men like Ma'a Nonu, Adam-Ashley Cooper and Jaque Fourie, who would target him mercilessly. He is an asset as a man to put on with O'Gara to see out a game.
Isaac Boss - Unlucky not to go
Boss is a maniac, and I am glad he is not going because he cannot be trusted to do the smart thing. Having said that, he had a decent year this year at Leinster and he has all the physical attributes to be a good scrum half.
He will consider himself unlucky not to go, but I don't think Ireland's collective nerves could handle entrusting our game-plan to Isaac Boss.
Ireland will bring two fly-halves. This is an area of great strength for Ireland.
Johhny Sexton - Starter
The Leinster man has really come of age after some early jitters. He was inspirational in Leinster's epic second half comeback against Northampton in the European Cup final and in Ireland's last game against England in the 6 nations he utterly outclassed and out-dueled his counterpart, Toby Flood.
He is a great goal-kicker, rock solid under pressure, a fine decision maker, a threat with the ball in hand, a solid defender and a man very quickly learning the fine art of how to wind down a clock and play out a game with tactical kicking.
He has a great understanding with the Leinster and Irish centers, and a brilliant temperament. Sexton is functioning at the moment at a level reminiscent of Dan Carter at a similar age. There is no higher praise than that. This kid has what it takes to be a star.
Ronan O'Gara - Replacement
Rog is still playing at an extremely high level. He is the player he has always been - a conservative kick-first 10 perfectly designed to play a tactical 'up-the-jumper' game. He is not Ireland's starting 10 anymore as Sexton is far more attacking minded, but O'Gara is still a key squad member.
With 20 minutes to go with an Irish lead, O'Gara is consistently brought on to kick the corners and frustrate the opposition.
He is still a surgeon with his boot and watching him strangle the life out of teams with his geometry defying kicking game is still one of the wonders of the Rugby world. If Sexton is injured, O'Gara is a world class deputy and someone in whom Ireland can have great confidence.
Nobody - Unlucky not to go
Keatley and Humphries are far too inconsistent and inexperienced to go. Paddy Wallace will go as a center. He will be the third string 10.
Ireland will bring 4 centers. This is an area of elite strength for Ireland.
Gordon D'Arcy - Starter. Once derided as a terrible passer, D'Arcy has worked hard on this area of his game. He had a huge season this year and looks like the player now that we all hoped he would one day become. He is quick, strong, clever, defensively solid and an excellent crash ball runner. His passing and vision is still not elite, but it has improved immensely. He is not as silky smooth or cerebral as Paddy Wallace, but he provides the physical foil to O'Driscoll's more subtle genius that Kidney - like most other coaches - seems to like in the center partnership, and he has definitely played well enough this year to keep this jersey.
Brian O'Driscoll - Starter. Need I say more? He is defying the laws of aging and diminishing returns. He is still the greatest center on the planet - in my humble (but correct!) opinion - and in his last ever World Cup, I am expecting fireworks from BOD almighty.
Paddy Wallace - Replacement. The perennially overlooked Wallace is a fabulous Rugby player in the ilk of Conrad Smith who moves beautifully off the ball to create space and has some beautiful hands. He is a good defender, and is also a capable fly-half. He is not however the crash ball type 12 that Kidney wants to partner O'Driscoll, so will have to make do with a place on the bench. He is a great option to bring on if we are chasing a game however, as he can make scores out of nothing and is exactly the sort of 12 to expose the defensive frailties in players like Sonny-Bill Williams, Damien Traille and Shontayne Hape.
Fergus McFadden - Replacement. McFadden makes it in here as he is a good young center with a solid international future. He does not have much top class experience and I would expect him to be tertiary cover at center behind players like Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, but he is also a very good winger and may get a few games against some of the lesser sides. A really good prospect.
Andrew Trimble - Unlucky to miss out. Trimble is an older version of McFadden with less ability in the long-term. He is a solid 12 and a reliable winger who can be put in to do a job, but he is not the sort of world class talent required to unlock stubborn Southern Hemisphere defenses. Still, he has been in and around the squad for years now and is a consistently solid performer so he will be unlucky to miss out.
As I suspect McFadden will go as a center and he can provide cover on the wing, I think Ireland will bring 3 out and out wingers. This is a strong area.
Tommy Bowe - Starter. Pace, talent, size and temperament in one package. Bowe is a very gifted broken field runner, a lethal finisher, very good in the air and has a good boot. He is a strong defender and is extremely creative. He will make chances for other players and can function to devastating effect in the center. He is Ireland's premier danger man in the back 3 and could be one of the stars of the tournament.
Keith Earls - Starter. Earls is a center at Munster but a winger in the Irish set up. Aside from being the primary replacement at 13 if the unthinkable happens and BOD gets injured, he is an exceptional wing well worth a starting spot. He is very quick and has a devastating step. He is a reliable defender, is very explosive over short distances a la Habana and is thus a wonderful finisher. He isn't as comfortable out wide as Bowe, so tends to over-compensate a bit by staying very wide instead of getting involved more in-field. He is however a fine player and a worthy starter.
Luke Fitzgerald - Replacement. Fitzy has all the physical attributes necessary to be a starter of the highest level, but as yet it has not clicked for him in green. Big things were expected of him this year but in truth he has been very disappointing. His spell at full-back in particular was nightmarish. he is a great defender and when confident an effective attacker, but has done nothing special this season to justify the hype or a starting jersey.
Andrew Trimble - Unlucky to miss out. See previous.
As Ireland have had both of there specialist top notch Full-Backs injured recently, I would expect both to be brought with the one in better form playing. This area is a 50/50. It really all comes down to form and could be either a real strength or a total non-starter.
Rob Kearney - Starter. I would give him a slight edge in the battle for the 15 jersey as he has been the regular starter when fit over recent years, and he is very very reliable in the air and with his boot. Kearney is, however, an old school full-back in that he does not specialize in running the ball back or in strike running. When he does try this he can be absolutely brilliant - as in 2009 on the Lions tour - or distinctly ineffectual.He will catch everything put near him, will not make mistakes and has the physicality and pace to be a real asset if his confidence is up. Only time will tell.
Geordan Murphy - Replacement. On his way back from injury now, this World Cup may well be Murphy's last hoorah. There is no guarantee he even makes the squad as Kidney may decide he wants to bring a younger player or to let one of the wingers act as the auxiliary full-back, but I suspect wily old Geordan will end up on the plane. He is not as fast as he once was, but he is still evasive. he is defensively solid, faultless in the air and has a good boot. He exudes class and calm and while he may no longer be an exceptional strength, he is certainly not a weakness. And, one never does know. He was once a magician of a full-back, and it is just possible he has a little of that old unforgettable fire still burning.
Felix Jones - Unlucky not to go. Jones is a very promising full-back with a real x-factor. But as yet he is unproven at international level, is slightly dodgy under a high ball and is still defensively a bit wild. He will be a really good player in a year or two, but this World Cup feels a tad early to me.
So there we have it. Ireland's likely 30 man squad in a nutshell.
4 Props, 3 Hookers, 4 Locks, 5 Back Rows, 3 Scrum Halves, 2 Fly Halves, 4 Centers, 3 Wingers and 2 Full-Backs.
Prop could be a weakness depending on injuries and form. Certainly our reserve props are not up to much. At Hooker we may be better off if the likely starter is injured. Our Locks and Back Rows are all top class. We have good, but not great Scrum-Halves and are blessed with two really special Fly-Halves.We are very strong in the center and out wide, but Full-Back is a real spot of uncertainty and concern.
Realistically speaking, Ireland are not much more than a dark-horse in this tournament. Certainly we are dependent a lot on the fitness of particular players in particular roles whereas the Southern nations have multiple word class options at every position. And more to the point, there is a question as to whether Ireland will be willing to cut loose and play the free-flowing attacking game we need to win the tournament. We certainly have the players for it, but do we have the coaching? On that issue, only time will tell.
So, in summation, Ireland winning the World Cup is a big long-shot. But, if fate transpires to get the right 15 guys on the field, in form, and playing the right way, we have a far better chance than most Soutern-Hemisphere fans might know and we could spring quite an upset.