On Wednesday afternoon Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations was unveiled.
With the release came an unusually long list of quotes from Schmidt – detailing in typically minute fashion the nearest contenders for the squad and why they had just missed out.
The release was instructive for two reasons – firstly to emphasise how relaxed this Ireland side are, with Schmidt happier than usual to show his hand, and secondly just how much strength in depth is growing on the Emerald Isle.
With Leinster, Munster and Ulster all well-placed to progress to the Champions Cup quarter-finals and Connacht in rare form – Ireland have selection headaches in nearly every area of the squad.
And after a record-breaking 2018 and with a World Cup on the horizon – there is good reason for all their Championship rivals to fear.
In a squad that showed plenty of continuity from the autumn – and last year’s Championship win – Schmidt still found room to spring a surprise or three.
The uncapped Connacht trio of Jack Carty, Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell have all earned their first call-ups to a Championship squad on the back of their impressive provincial form.
Under Andy Friend, the Galway side have hit the heights in the last few months and after an impressive festive fixture list – Schmidt has rewarded them.
Defending champions Ireland announce 38-man squad
Carty at No.10 was devastating against Leinster over Christmas and gets the nod ahead of Ross Byrne as the third fly-half.
Blade gets the call-up as Schmidt deals with some injury issues at No.9 while Farrell – perhaps the most impressive of the three new faces – will challenge hard in midfield for the No.13 jersey alongside namesake Chris Farrell and incumbent Garry Ringrose.
Throw in lock Ultan Dillane who gets his re-call for the Championship and it is clear Schmidt has been keeping a close eye on the Sportsground and will hope their attacking flair rubs off at international level.
And after the 2015 Rugby World Cup came to an early end, thanks in no small part to squad depth issues, four years on it would appear Schmidt has learned his lessons.
This is a squad jammed full of big-game experience – particularly after a 2018 that saw them claim a Grand Slam and down the All Blacks on home soil for the first time ever.
But you can never have too many veterans in the shake-up and Schmidt will be delighted to have both Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson back in contention.
Henderson played in the autumn but a thumb injury looked likely to rule him out of the early stages of this year’s Championship.
But the Ulster man has recovered quicker than expected and should battle with Tadhg Beirne for second-row minutes behind Devin Toner and James Ryan.
Meanwhile O’Brien – another Lions tourist in 2017 – has been injury-hit since that famous drawn series with the All Blacks.
A broken arm in the autumn against Argentina has kept the flanker out until now but he is back in full training and expected to feature for Leinster against Wasps this weekend.
And with Dan Leavy out injured – but expected to return at some point in the Championship – O’Brien will be itching to take his chance while he has it.
Conor Murray also had to miss the autumn with a neck problem – but has looked back to his best in recent weeks for Munster.
And his return could not be better timed considering the sole position of relative weakness is at scrum-half for Schmidt.
That is because Luke McGrath is injured and Kieran Marmion only returning from surgery while John Cooney is named in the squad despite missing out last weekend for Ulster.
That has opened the door to Blade to bring his sniping style to camp but the cool head of Murray is the real boost for Schmidt.
And while Ireland shot down the naysayers who say they are too reliant on the Munster No.9 when they downed the All Blacks this autumn without him, there is no doubt that they are better with him in their side.
Leinster have hardly missed a beat despite the injury absence of Jonathan Sexton in recent weeks.
Whether the same can be said for Ireland remains to be seen – the only game they lost in 2018 came when Sexton started on the bench in the first summer Test against Australia.
But it would appear that there is a serious rivalry brewing for the No.10 jersey in the World Cup year as Joey Carbery continues to hit new heights for Munster.
No longer stuck behind Sexton at the RDS and filling in at full-back, Carbery is now the go to man at fly-half for his new province and his last three outings have been spectacular – culminating in his masterclass at Kingsholm last time out.
He will have to go some to unseat the World Player of the Year in Sexton but with a knee injury keeping the Lion sidelined – Ireland can start to believe in their next cab off the rank.
In his five Championships at the helm of Irish rugby, Schmidt has already secured three first-place finishes and a Grand Slam.
But there is yet more history to aim at this year, his final one in charge of the country, before he calls time after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Never before in the Six Nations-era has a team achieved back to back Grand Slams – indeed France were the last team to do it back in 1997-98.
Schmidt and Ireland are now in many people’s eyes the No.1 team in the world after downing the All Blacks, so if anyone can make history surely it is them?
The fixture list in 2019 sees Ireland open up against an England side that will be gunning for revenge after their Twickenham defeat last year.
Should they negotiate that tough test they still have tricky trips to BT Murrayfield and Principality Stadium to come.
They lost both of their games there in the 2017 Championship – so Schmidt and co know that a place in the history books will have to be hard-earned.
It will not be easy, but then winning a Grand Slam never is.