When asked last week for his thoughts on Ireland’s impending squad announcement for the Autumn Internationals, Ulster’s in-form back-rower Nick Timoney was caught somewhat unawares.
With such panels usually revealed in a more ad hoc fashion than other unions, the once-capped 25-year-old didn’t know that tomorrow had been marked as decision day for Andy Farrell and his coaching team as he picked up his player of the match award last Friday night.
While Timoney was quick to then note that his attention was set squarely on this weekend’s trip to the Aviva Stadium to face Connacht with Ulster, rather than any of the games taking place at the same ground next month, his focus would need to be unwavering for his mind not to have wandered to the likelihood of cap No.2 in recent days.
The man who has been Ulster’s best loose forward for the past 10 months has already alluded to the notion that competition for these games against Japan, the All Blacks and Argentina will be considerably greater than it was for the visit of the USA in the summer.
The causes of the eight debutants from that game against the Eagles have hardly been helped by travel restrictions putting paid to the plans for a reverse fixture in Vegas next weekend and the presence of returning British and Irish Lions looms large.
Ireland tours that coincide with the best and brightest of the home unions heading for the southern hemisphere often produce a group of newcomers with decidedly mixed future prospects. Four years ago, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter all became fixtures in the squad after the return of those needed by Warren Gatland in New Zealand, but the other five debutants from that trip have amassed just 24 further caps with 11 of those provided by the now ignored John Cooney.
Four years before that and those capped by Les Kiss on the tour to USA and Canada had even shorter spells in green with four Tests the average for the newcomers outside of Robbie Henshaw.
Getting your foot in the door has been one thing, staying in the room quite another.
Indeed, in Timoney’s own specialised position group, he will be fighting for places not just with the likes of Gavin Coombes and Paul Boyle, but returning tourists Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan. Throw in the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris and the fit-again Dan Leavy and you have one of Ireland’s most competitive units.
Working in the Ulsterman’s favour has been his impressive start to the United Rugby Championship. While his five tries in four games have caught the headlines, it is his overall play in the seven jersey that caused none other than Tommy Bowe to liken him to David Wallace last week.
Ireland boss Farrell, who was at Kingspan Stadium for the win against Benetton, has surely been impressed.
James Hume, too, must have caught his eye. Another recent Test debutant, the centre has become something of a lynchpin in the Ulster midfield, making the 13 jersey his own and seemingly taking on greater responsibility in the recent absence of Stuart McCloskey.
Dan McFarland indicated on Monday that McCloskey should still be fit for Ireland duty next month if not for the weekend, while Leinster’s Henshaw, one of those returning Lions, is in the same boat.
With Bundee Aki available again after his own exploits in South Africa, Fivemiletown native Chris Farrell a mainstay of the panel and Ciaran Frawley in good form with Leinster, Farrell has plenty to choose from even without Garry Ringrose.
Winger Robert Baloucoune’s anticipated return to action this week should see him retained, while it will be interesting to watch how Andrew Porter’s switch to loosehead opens doors for Tom O’Toole behind Tadhg Furlong.
Fitness could be all that would prevent Iain Henderson and Stockdale being involved, while Rob Herring has been a constant presence since the World Cup and has started the season well. Should Johnny Sexton get over a hip issue, though, Billy Burns could be left hoping that Jack Carty hasn’t done enough to force his way back in.
And what of Nathan Doak? The man of the moment at Kingspan is one of the form scrum-halves in Ireland but with only three senior starts to his name it is likely a bit too soon for the 19-year-old. Given his bright future though, it would be no surprise to see him included as a “development player”.
His time will come. Those Ulstermen a little bit further down the track will be hoping they’ve shown that theirs is now.