Ireland RWC Bolters
With the regular season all done and dusted for the Irish rugby provinces, it's time to reflect on the season, and look forward to the World Cup this September.
Was there anyone who had an impressive season that might catapult themself into the World Cup contention? These seven bolters had stellar seasons for their province and have all improved their chances of getting a second look from Joe Schmidt before he selects his 31 man squad.
Connacht's 24 year old loosehead had a coming of age season. He was probably one of the few players who was consistently excellent throughout the entire season with no lulls. He scrummaged excellently, and converted himself into an extra openside including one game against Munster where he had five turnovers at the breakdown.
Will get more time to impress this season in the Emerging Ireland squad. Has an outside chance to take the third loosehead spot. I'd really like to see him get a chance to in an extended squad.
Sometimes a picture tells you all you need to know. Jack Conan was the one youngster from Leinster's factory that made the step up, and the 22 year old gave fans a glimpse of what life would be like without Jamie Heaslip.
The World Cup is coming perhaps a year too soon for Conan, but that he'll be in the extended squad really shows how far he's come since August when not many knew who he was.
The second Connacht entry reflects their improved season. But it's by no means a token inclusion in this list. Matt Healy has grown immeasurably as a player since he joined the professional game from Lansdowne.
The former Ireland U20 scrumhalf has turned himself into a lethal winger. Healy's season was spent creating all sorts of danger with ball in hand, and he was 0ne of Connacht's most lethal threats scoring nine tries in all competition this season.
Like Buckley and Conan, Healy wasn't on the international radar at the start of the season, but should find himself in the Emerging Ireland squad. Unfortunately for Healy, he's probably at the end of a long queue of wingers in Ireland. He's still young and developing though, so he might still have an international future.
Named in the Pro 12 team of the season, O'Donnell built on last season with another impressive campaign. While some of the other names on this list weren't on the radar internationally, O'Donnell was already capped.
That said though, not many back in August would have expected O'Donnell to start the Six Nations. Back in August, O'Donnell was probably not in many 31 man squads for the World Cup. After his season, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he makes it.
He's not guaranteed given the competition, but after the season he's had he's given himself a much better chance.
Any other time in Irish rugby history - Craig Gilroy would be a regular for Ireland finishing try after try of intricate attacking moves with his pace and footwork.
But this is Ireland after 20 years of professionalism. This is Ireland with competition for every place in the squad. There are up to eight wingers in Ireland that could be considered to be ahead of Gilroy.
For someone who had four tries in their first two international caps, Gilroy has had to make do with two summer tour appearances in the last two years.
Eleven tries in the Pro 12 as the top try scorer in the competition and two in Ulster's ill fated Champions Cup adventure show he's still in dazzling try scoring form.
He certainly didn't do his chances any harm with his most prolific season yet.
At the end of last season, the outhalf situation in Ireland was seen as the top three with Keatley's international chances having passed.
For Keatley to go on and start the Six Nations in possession of the Ireland no. 10 jersey illustrates how much has changed. Keatley's game-management and running threat have been features of this season, while Ian Madigan is struggling for a chance at outhalf in Leinster and Ulster's Paddy Jackson having a season written off through injury.
See Also: The Pro 12 Team Of The Season Contains Not One Leinster Player
See Also: Will Gordon D’Arcy Make Ireland’s Rugby World Cup Squad?
See Also: Irish Rugby’s Depth Means Quality Will Be Left Behind