Ireland fit bill for Aussie war despite injury crisis
At the end of a gruelling November, it is no surprise that the picture around Ireland's walking-wounded is less than clear ahead of Saturday's final Test against Australia.
As the dust settles on the defeat to New Zealand last weekend and the fog of outrage over referee Jaco Peyper's performance begins to clear, the importance of the 12th and final Test of 2016 becomes apparent.
It has been a year in which Joe Schmidt's team underwent a post-World Cup transition and made history on the other side.
A series of games that saw them play South Africa three times, New Zealand twice and finish off against the Wallabies - with Canada in the middle of it all - always looked like being an opportunity to see how this team are shaping up as the four year cycle enters year two.
They have achieved two significant firsts in beating South Africa away and the All Blacks in Chicago and they have been ultra-competitive every time they've met the big guns.
Of course, recent weeks have underlined that the Springboks series was, ultimately, one that got away and there is a real feeling that last weekend's defeat to the world champions could have gone the other way.
So, Saturday's game against Michael Cheika's resurgent Wallabies offers a chance to finish on a high with the scalps of all three big guns collected and a 50pc success rate they would have taken before it all began.
Their form has seen them rise into the top-four of the world rankings and victory over Australia would help keep them there, with the World Cup draw looming large on May 10 of next year.
While this November will always be remembered as the time Ireland finally beat New Zealand, if they finish with two from four it will feel like a lost opportunity.
"It's just about us going out there and delivering some of the things we didn't do and we felt like we could have done better against New Zealand," forwards coach Simon Easterby said.
"That means our performance will improve and maybe we'll take some of those opportunities, and prevent them from getting opportunities, and taking them as well.
"There's a little bit of frustration from the weekend. I think those experiences in South Africa - in your past playing days - they always add a bit to your know-how and your knowledge, and sometimes to your motivation.
"The world rankings are in the background. That is there and it's always going to be there until May 10 when they decide on the positions.
"Australia are one of a number of teams that are in the mix and jostling for one of those positions, whether it be top four, or staying in the top eight.
"It has a bearing but it's not in the forefront of our minds because it's more important that we get a performance and we get all our stuff right, and then hopefully on the back of that, those things will look after themselves."
The main focus at Carton House would appear to be who is actually available after Saturday's bruising encounter with the All Blacks.
Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw have been ruled out, leaving openings at Nos 10 and 12, but CJ Stander and Rob Kearney are on track to be available as they go through the return to play protocols from their head injuries.
For the minimum disruption to his side, Schmidt is likely to stick to his first-choice full-back and blindside flanker who both took a limited part in training yesterday.
Traditionally, Schmidt does not pick players who can't contribute fully on the Tuesday of Test weeks, but that rule loosens up as windows near their end.
"By week four of a series and based on what happened at the weekend, I think probably you have to take it in a little bit of context in terms of making sure that, yes, we get as many of the players we see will be selected on the weekend fit, and training and preparing," Easterby said.
"It is sometimes difficult when you have a lot of players who have bumps and are banged up and have certain issues. It is not always possible to get that spot on.
"They (Stander and Kearney) have been on return to play protocols which doesn't mean they cannot train at all. It just means that they have certain things to overcome, that's all.
"There are certain things they were able to do but they were not able to do everything."
Paddy Jackson is set to replace Sexton at out-half, with his Ulster colleagues Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding competing to play alongside him. Rory Scannell is also in camp this week, but he seems an unlikely pick given his lack of previous involvement.
Although this is his first time with the squad this November, Olding has built some trust with Schmidt from the summer tour when he started the second and third Tests, impressing in the near miss in the decider in Port Elizabeth where he played outside Jackson.
Kearney's fitness would allow Schmidt to keep Jared Payne at No 13 to maintain the all-Ulster combination in midfield, while Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble are unlikely to be dislodged on the wings. Iain Henderson and Cian Healy could be asked to add freshness to the tight-five, but back-row is the most interesting area.
Much depends on Stander who left the field with a head injury after a collision with Israel Dagg. Josh van der Flier was excellent in his absence, while Peter O'Mahony is also pushing for selection.
"We're fortunate we've got a couple of those more experienced players coming back to full fitness," Easterby said.
"But credit to the guys over the last few weekends for the performance they've put in, putting huge pressure on selection. That's what you want in all positions, but in particular the back row will be a difficult one."
- Ireland v Australia, Guinness International: Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm