Will Ireland's best scrum-half please stand up?
A few lads have staked claims, while others have faltered.
Back in March, it was crystal clear. John Cooney had earned his chance for the home Guinness Six Nations game against Italy. That was the way of it. He would finally get a crack.
Andy Farrell had stuck with the Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton combination for the start of the championship and while both justified their selections in the home wins over Wales and Scotland, the England game at Twickenham was a wake-up call [the third England had delivered in 13 months].
Sexton had a poor game against England but Murray was set to lose out when Italy visited Dublin for the round four game. Cooney was primed. He had scored five Champions Cup tries, in the pool stages, and was up there with Antoine Dupont as Europe's form player.
The Covid-19 pandemic was ramping up at that stage, however, and the Italy game was postponed. Ireland's next game against France suffered a similar fate and then the entire championship, and rugby season's all over the world, were put on hold.
From preparing for a first ever Six Nations start to settling in for months at home, it was a tough twist for the Ulster scrumhalf but he showed a grounded sense of perspective on House of Rugby.
"It is disappointing but a world-wide pandemic, what the hell? You’re not going to expect something like that. It’s a pretty valid reason for a game not to go ahead, so feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to do much, to be honest."
It took six months for Cooney and his teammates to get back out on the pitch and most ended to 2019/20 season, with their provinces, without the niggles and banged up bodies they are so used to living with. One of the big questions was, who would hit the ground running.
One month in and now looking ahead to the new season, it is hard to say if any one player has done enough to push themselves to the top of the line. Murray - the man currently in possession - has been solid but the emergence of Craig Casey has some fans questioning the senior partner's lack of fizz. If anything, the uncapped Jamison Gibson-Park's case has been strengthened the most.
To me, Cooney still merits the start against Italy. Putting him in alongside Sexton - still our best outhalf option - and letting him have a real crack off the Azzurri would change things up for an Ireland side that need to get off to a fast start. In all likelihood, Ireland will need to beat Italy by 40+ points to give themselves a chance of winning the Six Nations.
Here is the current state of the nation, regarding Ireland's scrumhalf options:
Looked in good nick for Munster and had that fizz back in his pass. Had three starts and acquitted himself well in the opening games against Leinster and Connacht. Steady rather than spectacular, he then followed the Munster game-plan of box-kicking heavily in the semi-final to a tee. He is the best in the business at it, but that sometimes overshadows the rest of what he can bring to teams.
Not how he would have envisioned his rugby start. Found himself subbed at half-time in the loss to Connacht and semi-final win over Edinburgh, only to be dropped for the Guinness PRO14 final. Had a 70-metre intercept try chalked off, against Leinster, due to a marginal offside call. Restored to the starting XV for the Champions Cup quarter final against Toulouse but was out-shone by Dupont as the French side swatted Ulster aside. Scored a consolation try, as an emergency left winger, late in the game.
Has moments where you think he is the answer before a sloppy mistake puts his team in trouble. Box-kicking not on Murray's level but his support lines are excellent and he gets the ball away quickly when Leinster need it. Not at his best in that semi win over Munster, usurped by Jamison Gibson-Park for the PRO14 final and restored to the starting XV for the Saracens game only to have an off-day, where he made two bad errors inside his own and the Saracens' 22.
Only had one game to show us what he was made of but did so impressively as Connacht returned to rugby with a well deserved win over Ulster. Missed much of November and December through injury but was challenging Caolin Blade for the No.9 jersey when the pandemic truly kicked in. Looked in good physical condition against Ulster, went the full 80 and scored a nice try.
JAMISON GIBSON PARK
A little over a year ago, there was speculation over Gibson-Park getting a bolter call-up to Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad. As it transpired, Schmidt just went with Murray and McGrath and had Joey Carbery as back-up, in case of emergencies. The Irish-qualified Kiwi has done his chances of Test rugby no harm at all since rugby resumed. Showed plenty of spark and crisp passing in the two wins over Ulster and was the very definition of bench impact in the Munster game and against Saracens.
Like Marmion, only had one game to bolt his arm up. Got the full 80 minutes against Munster and made a couple of nice attacking line-breaks but missed a few tackles in defence. Hard to be too critical, though, as Connacht played 45 minutes with only 13 men. Will be interesting to see who Andy Friend starts the new season with.
Still only finding his feet in the senior game but showing no signs of fear and getting Munster fans excited. Ireland's scrumhalf when they won the 2019 Under-20 Grand Slam, Casey has leap-frogged Nick McCarthy and Neil Cronin and has a rapid-fire pass. Each time he came on for Murray, during the start, he upped the tempo of Munster's attacking game. Big season ahead and an Irish breakthrough not out of the question.