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Golden generation have departed but we've never been in any better shape

By Tony Ward

Twelve months on from the doom and gloom that followed Ireland's World Cup exit and the subsequent provincial wipeout in the Champions Cup, things could not be looking much better for Joe Schmidt.

Compared to then, it's as if we are inhabiting a different rugby planet entirely, with Leinster and Munster securing home quarter-final draws and Connacht coming agonisingly close to getting out of their pool.

Of course, there is no guarantee that provincial progress will lead to Six Nations glory - different management, different systems, different calls, different game-plans etc - but most of Schmidt's squad will bounce into Carton House in top form, with spirits lifted and confidence high.

The Ireland coach could hardly be getting his players back in better shape - even if the Championship opener at Murrayfield looks a real banana skin.

Since the autumn internationals only Niyi Adeolokun and Jack O'Donoghue have really fallen from grace, with every other player involved in that Guinness series back on board.

The other exceptions are longer-term injury casualties Jared Payne, Joey Carbery, Sean Cronin and Jordi Murphy.

Indeed take out the retired Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan and the injured Dave Kearney, Stuart Olding and Mike Ross, and only four men - Sean Reidy, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock and Richardt Strauss - are absent from the squad of 32 that took off for South Africa in June.

Continuity in selection has been facilitated by consistency in form.

Schmidt has named a 40-man preliminary squad and it is difficult to argue with the vast majority of those called up.

Cases could be made for Leinster wings Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin, Connacht loosehead Denis Buckley and Munster back-row O'Donoghue too but given the options in those positions you can't really take issue with Schmidt's calls.

In the case of Byrne and O'Loughlin it's still small steps but the omens are good.

While Ulster have been under-performing as a team, Tommy Bowe and particularly Stuart McCloskey have been making an impact in adversity; so too, to a lesser extent, have Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy.

Bowe is a special talent with a special skill-set once the requirement extends beyond aerial gymnastics.

It's good to see Billy Holland and Tommy O'Donnell rewarded for their consistency with Munster.

Holland may be a rookie in terms of Test caps but he is certainly a leader and a good addition to the Carton House environment.

O'Donnell is competing in the most densely populated area of all. In Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and O'Donnell, we have three genuine openside flankers in the Keith Gleeson/ Nigel Carr/Fergus Slattery mould of old.

On form and vast potential I cannot for the life of me see how Van der Flier can possibly be left out. His mobility, work at the breakdown and almost telepathic lines of running make him a certainty for the No 7 shirt.

And I haven't even mentioned Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jack Conan or Jamie Heaslip yet.

At this distance my preference for Murrayfield would be Stander, Van der Flier and Heaslip, with Conan pushing O'Mahony all the way for the utility bench role. Make no mistake, Conan's time is fast approaching.

It's hugely encouraging too to see the Scannell brothers enter the frame. Both Rory and Niall have been the epitome of consistency for Munster in an amazing season for the southern province.

As with tighthead John Ryan and wing Andrew Conway, the call is fully merited.

And what of Darren Sweetnam were he fit and available? Along with Byrne and O'Loughlin, the former Cork hurler is another wing for the immediate future.

At scrum-half the gap is still considerable between Conor Murray and the chasing two but Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are both benefiting enormously from their recent European exposure.

Johnny Sexton's fitness is essential, although in Paddy Jackson we have a more than adequate replacement.

Ian Madigan is still No 3 for me, despite playing in France. If an exception could be made in Sexton's time abroad, then why not Madigan now?

The one position still open is full-back. Based on recent form and with Jared Payne ruled out it should be Simon Zebo, Tiernan O'Halloran and Rob Kearney in that order.

Kearney brought so much to the cause at Soldier Field but his season has been decimated before and since through injury. With the Leinster man's lack of match time, the choice at No 15 is a big call for Schmidt.

Mix it all together and it could make for one potent cocktail. It is a squad picked for now but includes 12 players with three caps or less.

The golden generation may have gone but I doubt we have ever been in better shape.

Belfast Telegraph

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