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Best, Murray and Furlong are crucial to Irish hopes

Squad is our strongest ever with three top players battling for most positions

By Tony Ward

I was never great at maths in school but one thing I'm pretty sure about is that three into one won't go. Yet in Joe Schmidt's utopian world of coaching that is the Holy Grail.

He has just named a preliminary squad of 40 for the upcoming Six Nations but if the likes of Jordi Murphy, Jared Payne, Mike Ross, Stuart Olding, Joey Carbery, Sean Cronin and maybe Dave Kearney had been fit and/or available a case could be made for 45 and, hey presto, formula in place.

Oh that it were that simple. The bottom line aim of course is to get the fittest, in-form 23 the head coach deems in situ for the next opposition on a horses for courses basis.

To that end Schmidt is no different from any mentor at any level in any game in that he has a hard core upon whom he knows he can rely.

All things being equal in the lead in to selection the tried and trusted will get the nod every time and I support that stance to the full.

But back to our formula and specifically to that utopian ideal. On Planet Schmidt there would be three players for EVERY position. Not just three props (and bear in mind there was a time not so long ago when we didn't even have that) but three loose and three tight heads of equal calibre and the same in every position from one to 15.

So in the search for the perfect jigsaw just where are we at this point in time?

Let me preface that by saying that despite losing the golden generation to old Father Time we are in a better place now in terms of strength in depth than we have ever been.

Does that mean we are set for a third Grand Slam? Not saying that at all but what I am saying is that because we have the best coach we have ever had, who has put in place a powerful backroom team in which he trusts, slowly but surely the omens are good for that reservoir of talent we all crave.

So starting at loose head just where are we at in the 'three for one' race? Jack McGrath is number one with fellow Leinster left sided scrummager Cian Healy the shadow. Dave Kilcoyne has been on fire for Munster of late and has worked himself in as a more than solid number three in the position.

On the right side it's better than ever. That said it is still early days and while Tadgh Furlong has been a revelation in the number three shirt he is still a relative rookie with 11 caps while Finlay Bealham (3) and John Ryan have but four between them. So at tight head while in a good place with Furlong there is much still to be done in the search for cover.

In between we are again well served provincially in the hooking position. We have yet another all time great in Ulster's Rory Best, a player who has grown into the role of captaincy since taking over from Paul O'Connell when that leadership task seemed mission impossible. But injury to Best and, yes, we have an 'inexperience problem' in the middle of the front row.

In the second row, despite losing O'Connell, we are already well covered through Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, Ultan Dillane and Billy Holland in that order.

Ulsterman Henderson is a class act who simply has to be included from the off. Then there is the issue of impact where Dillane comes into the equation as a very real mid match alternative.

The back row? Realistically it should be three from CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip.

My gut (like Schmidt's) is with Stander, O'Brien (if fit) and Heaslip to start against the Scots but who then in reserve? O'Mahony, Van der Flier or Jack Conan (that is some shadow back row).

At scrum half we have three but Conor Murray on form, experience and temperament stands alone. Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are well on the way but Murray's welfare is essential.

The importance of Johnny Sexton cannot be under played but Paddy Jackson has come on leaps and bounds. In South Africa he came of age at the highest level and I would have no problem with the Ulster pivot stepping into Sexton's slot should that need arise. Beyond that Ian Madigan's standby call should be a no brainer.

In midfield in the enforced absence of Ulster's Payne it will be Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose at 12 and 13 respectively with Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Rory Scannell vying for the bench.

McCloskey and Scannell the younger have been outstanding for a struggling Ulster side and for Munster respectively.

In the back three Schmidt has given himself options with Andrew Conway the new kid. Full back is a big call given Rob Kearney's injury problems.

Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy could be deemed somewhat fortunate while Tiernan O'Halloran has been outstanding for Connacht as has Simon Zebo for Munster. I suspect it will be Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Zebo but with Keith Earls back too we are well served.

So we are in good nick in 12 of the 15 positions. That will improve again but for now the welfare of Best, Furlong and Murray is imperative.

Belfast Telegraph

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