As the rugby seasons weaves its way along an exciting home stretch, recent European action has provided an intriguing sub-plot for Irish fans – namely the make-up of Andy Farrell’s panel for the summer’s mammoth trip to New Zealand.
Fresh off a Triple Crown and in a season where they swept their autumn series, including a stirring Dublin victory over the All Blacks, optimism around the national side is higher than it has been at any point since the annus mirabilis of 2018. But what followed a year later in Japan is a constant reminder that to stand still in top-level sport is akin to going backwards.
This tour, their first to the Land of the Long White Cloud since 2012 when all three Tests were lost, is an important staging post on the road to next year’s World Cup in France, not just for those front-liners facing the ultimate test of southern hemisphere travels, but for those on the fringes seeking to either establish themselves in the panel or to break in before that global showpiece now in just 16 months' time.
With two midweek games expected to be on the schedule there will be a real chance for that latter group to stake their claim for places in what will have to be an expanded panel.
Munster’s epic battle with Toulouse at the weekend again highlighted the impressive performances of Mike Haley and Jack O’Donoghue this season, not capped since 2019 and 2017 respectively, while potential newcomers have impressed too.
With Gavin Coombes out injured, Alex Kendellen has been something of a revelation in the seven jersey and was part of the fantastic back-row effort that produced 19 turnovers against the reigning champions in the Aviva on Saturday. An extremely competitive area of the field for Ireland, Connacht’s Cian Prendergast could be another hoping to pull on the green jersey for a first time in the coming months too.
In the face of Toulouse’s sheer physical strength, it was hard not to be impressed too by how the Wycherley brothers, Fineen and Josh, acquitted themselves as members of the starting pack, while Thomas Ahern added something off the bench too.
Ulster, owing to their own agonising defeat at the hands of Toulouse, have been idle last week and this, but with big knockout games to come in the URC after their play-off place was secured a week ago, there’ll be plenty of Dan McFarland’s men looking to book a seat on the plane too.
All capped for a first time in the past 12 months, Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, Tom O’Toole, Nick Timoney and James Hume will all expect to build on their recent experience, while it will be worth watching how Kieran Treadwell builds on his successful return to the fold during the Six Nations.
In terms of bolters, Nathan Doak is surely on the management’s radar given it seems his ascension to Test status seems to be a matter not of if but when, and McFarland has previously admitted that wing Ethan McIlroy, scorer of a recent European brace, has come up in conversation with Farrell this season.
Rather than uncapped tourists, plenty in Ulster will be keeping out for a potential return for Marty Moore too.
While Ireland's best player is at tighthead in the shape of Tadhg Furlong, the depth behind him has been muddied by Andrew Porter’s return to loosehead and, when Ulster face their biggest challenges, it is Moore who is entrusted with the No.3 jersey.
He hasn’t featured for the side since leaving Leinster for Wasps all the way back in 2016, with his last cap actually coming in the Six Nations before due to injury, but given his importance to Ulster and form this year, it is surely now or never for a recall.
Such summer tours are again the subject of intense speculation after rugby bosses met in Dublin last night to discuss the revived Nations Championship concept.
Plans, originally shelved in 2019, are for a biennial format that would not take place during World Cup or Lions years and are aimed at giving more meaning to cross-hemisphere Test matches.
The format, which could begin as early as 2026, would have a top division of 12 teams, consisting of the Six Nations sides as well as those from the Rugby Championship, Japan and Fiji, who would compete in the summer and autumn windows culminating in a grand final.
A second-tier, it is believed, would include the potential for promotion and relegation, although it has already been pointed out that in the short-term this would deprive developing nations of crucial experience and revenue from competing regularly against the so-called Tier One sides.
A further complication is provided by the staging of the aforementioned grand final in a fourth week of autumn internationals when the present window allows only for three sanctioned Tests.
As ever, stakeholders in the club game will take some convincing that another week without their star names will be beneficial.