With the World Cup done and dusted, the Ireland squad face into the 2012 Six Nations buoyed by a terrific run in the Heineken Cup by Leinster, Munster and Ulster and in a state of settled determination.
Declan Kidney leads Ireland into a Six Nations campaign for the fourth time and will no doubt be looking to reach that holy grail, a Grand slam, for the first time since 2009.
If that is to happen, they will have to do without a certain Brian O’Driscoll. The Leinster and Ireland legend is still on the rehab table after surgery a number of months ago and will have to watch from the sidelines as Paul O’Connell leads the green army into battle.
One of the most talked about questions in recent times is who will take up the much vaunted number 13 jersey vacated by O’Driscoll’s absence.
Keith Earls has, for a number of seasons, been spoken about as the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll. His electric pace and ultra quick feet have marked him out as a special talent, regardless of where he plays.
However, it could be that Tommy Bowe is given the chance to stamp his own mark on the centre position. The Ospreys star has played at both wing and centre for his club and would offer a more physical threat than Earls at 13, who could be paired with Andrew Trimble on the wings.
The backrow has a settled look to it and one would think, barring injuries, it picks itself. Jamie Heaslip is coming back to his ’09 Lions best in recent weeks and when on form is as good a No 8 in the world.
Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien have been doing what they do best, smashing other players and making huge contributions over the last number of months. Expect the same over the next seven weeks.
The inclusion of a number of uncapped players, including the hugely exciting Simon Zebo, adds an element of freshness to the Ireland squad and could give Ireland that secret weapon should the likes of Zebo, Dave Kearney et al be drafted into the 22 for the opening game against Wales.
That opening game against the Welsh will shape the course of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign. Win and not only do they get the World Cup defeat out of their systems, they also travel to Paris six days later on a high and be ready to take the French on in their own back yard.
Lose the game and they are immediately on the back foot. They then face the prospect of facing the World Cup finalists looking for form and confidence in a city where they don’t have the best record, to put it mildly.
While a Grand Slam is achievable, a Triple Crown or a Six Nations championship looks like Ireland’s most realistic chance of winning silverware this season.
It all kicks off this Sunday. Prepare for your emotions to be turned upside down as only international test rugby can and for Ireland to stand tall.
Predication Ireland to win Triple Crown & finish runners up.
Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) Tommy Bowe (Ospreys) Tom Court (Malone/Ulster) Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster) Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster) Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster) Chris Henry (Ballymena/Ulster) Denis Hurley (Cork Constitution/Munster) Shane Jennings (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster) David Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster)* Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster) Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster) Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster) Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster) Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster) Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster)*Eoin O’Malley (Old Belvedere/Leinster)* Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster) Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster) Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster) Rhys Ruddock (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster) Dan Tuohy (Ballymena/Ulster) Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster) Brett Wilkinson (Galwegians/Connacht)*Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster)*