Growing Ireland’s squad depth was central to Joe Schmidt’s ambitions when the Kiwi took over as head coach in 2013.
Now, seven years on, Ireland, under new boss Andy Farrell, are blessed with a strong squad sprinkled with immense talent.
Beyond the battle at 9 and 10 and the ferocity up front, it could be argued that Ireland’s winning and losing of games hinges on their options at the backrow and their ball-carrying abilities.
Farrell’s current backrow options hum with godliness, and aside from being a nuisance for the opposition at the breakdown, the Men in Green make it impossible for teams to generate quick ball.
For some onlookers, the backrow selection should be straightforward for a team ranked fifth in the world.
In Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander, the national side have three tried and trusted players who have shone on the grand stage over the years.
Van der Flier is a class act, knows all the ins and outs of the game, and is a dependable player. He hits rucks, makes tackles and can go for 80 minutes.
When fit, he deserves immense credit for his physical durability and intelligence in and out of contact.
O’Mahony, if anything, has all the years of experience, brings composure to the players around him but has started to show the first signs of his demise over the last 12 months.
The question begs as to whether there has been an improvement since that sterling performance against the All Blacks in November 2018. And if he can get back to his best. He turns 31 in September.
Of course, the Munster man can pop up anywhere, has great ball skills, is a line-out option and a real leader. He knocks people over and seems to have a motor which never slows down.
At the base of the scrum is Stander. He played 373 minutes across six World Cup games and puts in a commanding effort in attack and defence.
He hits rucks hard, carries well, moves bodies and his skills continue to improve. The real question going forward will be whether he shifts across the backrow to keep his place in the starting 15.
There is, no doubt, another World Cup in Stander but whether that’ll be in a number six or eight jersey remains to be seen.
So there it is – straightforward, really. This is Andy Farrell’s backrow for the Six Nations.
Except it isn’t.
There are issues – not significant issues but young guns coming through who deserve their opportunity and could establish themselves as a real force this season, and right through to the next World Cup in 2023.
In 23-year-old Will Connors, Ireland have an incredible talent who has proven his mettle for Leinster this campaign.
His performance against Munster in the PRO14 in December – 23 tackles, zero missed – was sublime. His stunning double hit on Darren O’Shea proved to be a key moment as the Red Army pushed for a try late on.
His timing is sharp, he gets low, and his acceleration to make the hit is something that sets him apart from the other opensides in the business at the moment.
At number eight, Caelan Doris is emerging as another frontrunner to earn an international cap in 2020.
The Mayo native, 21, showed well for 75 minutes against Northampton in the Champions Cup last month and has performed consistently in his eight PRO 14 appearances this term, including a man-of-the-match display against Munster.
What sets him apart at his tender age is his ball carrying ability, decision making, defensive work-rate and sheer athleticism.
In the same position, Max Deegan is a name that has been pursed on Irish rugby fans lips since he won the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year accolade back in 2016.
Aside from his consistent form, the 23-year-old’s standout display came against Connacht last week at the RDS.
The Dublin man scored two tries, provided three assists, made 26 tackles and missed one, had 21 carries and gained 71 metres, beating four defenders. Enough to show Farrell he is ready for a place in the Six Nations training squad.
Of the injured players fighting their way back, Jack Conan will be vying for that coveted number eight jersey and the Bray man continues to recover from foot surgery. The same goes for Dan Leavy, working his way back from a long-term knee injury. When fit, his stand-out showings in defence ease the pressure on others.
Doris seems to be ahead of Conan and Deegan at present, and should earn a cap over the coming months.
Jordi Murphy, although not named in Farrell’s 45-man training squad last month, is still a class and consistent performer, and covers all three backrow positions.
Similarly for Rhys Ruddock, an influential leader, who showed against Japan and New Zealand why he merits a place in the matchday 23.
O’Mahony and Stander will both be 34 come the 2023 World Cup and, although their experience will prove valuable over the next year or two, it is worth giving the likes of Connors and Doris an opportunity either in this Six Nations or the summer tour of Australia.
No matter how good a player is, it’s all about being sharp. Sharpness comes from playing games. Not sitting in the stand.
A new manager, like Farrell, needs to get his reign off to a positive start, but if he opts for the tried and trusted under Schmidt, then it sends a wrong message.
Form needs to be rewarded, and of course, the balance of experience and youth have to be right.
Come February 1 against Scotland in Farrell’s opening match, let’s hope one of those rising stars gets the platform to strut his wares on the Six Nations stage.
IRELAND’S BACKROW OPTIONS
Peter O’Mahony (30)
CJ Stander (29)
Josh van der Flier (26)
Will Connors (23)
Max Deegan (23)
Caelan Doris (21)
Rhys Ruddock (29)
Jordi Murphy (28)
Jack Conan (27)*
Dan Leavy (25)*
Jack O’Donoghue (25)
Scott Penny (20)