Predicted Ireland team to play Wales in Six Nations finale
Joe Schmidt will take charge of his final Six Nations game this weekend as Ireland look to keep their faint championship hopes alive with a trip to Cardiff to face Wales.
Ireland would need to defeat Wales and hope England lose to Scotland for their best chance at defending their championship crown but even if Eddie Jones' side topple the Scots, Ireland can still ruin Wales' Grand Slam parade should they prevail at the Principality Stadium.
Ireland have underwhelmed throughout the Six Nations but they got their campaign back on track against France with a dominant 26-14 win in Dublin on Sunday.
The heavily scrutinised Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray put in their best performances of the tournament, Garry Ringrose was phenomenal in the Irish midfield and Jordan Larmour deputised supremely well in the absence of the injured Rob Kearney.
It was great to see from a team that has largely failed to deliver thus far but how much of an indicator it will be for future selection is anyone's guess.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has done a lot of experimenting with his squad this year and will have no problem starting one player one week and dropping them from the squad for the next game.
It makes guessing Schmidt teams quite hard as there's always a curveball thrown in somewhere (e.g. Robbie Henshaw at full-back against England, Jack Conan to start against Scotland) but we'll try make some sense of Sunday's win and what it might mean for the final game of the tournament.
1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best
3. Tadhg Furlong
Sean Cronin had made a very good case to start for Ireland this season given his performances with Leinster but he ultimately squandered his opportunity against Italy and once again finds himself on the fringes of Schmidt's plans. The front-row is one of Ireland's most predictable areas and for good reason. Healy, Best and Furlong are all very solid.
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
James Ryan may only be 22 and in his second full year of international rugby but he's almost the first name on the teamsheet at this stage. After another man of the match performance against France, his place may as well be etched in stone but the race to partner him is very interesting.
Iain Henderson was solid against France and probably leads that particular contest with Schmidt, who allowed Tadhg Beirne to return for Musnter against the Ospreys recently in what was a man of the match performance from the former Scarlet.
Beirne has been one of the best locks in Europe over the last two seasons and really deserves a crack at the international level but may again find himself on the outer with Ultan Dillane starting to re-establish himself as a bench player under Schmidt.
6. CJ Stander
7. Peter O'Mahony
8. Jack Conan
Conan played very well off the bench against France and may have worked his way back into the starting team with a team high 16 tackles and eight runs, trailing only Ryan and Stander in the forwards for carries.
Conan would be the logical choice to slide in at number eight with CJ Stander able to shift over to the blindside, where he shone in his first season with Ireland in 2016, while the ballhawk Peter O'Mahony would then slot in at openside.
Of course, van der Flier could recover and gain selection, Sean O'Brien or Jordi Murphy could be brought back into the fold or even Dan Leavy could come off the bench if he's fit. Schmidt is liable to do almost anything here but Conan has probably earned his shot again after the France win while O'Mahony and Stander are virtual certainties to start.
9. Conor Murray
10. Johnny Sexton
2018 Six Nations Player of the Tournament nominee and 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year. Both started to look a little more like the players that earned those tags last year and will be locked in to start against Wales.
12. Bundee Aki
13. Garry Ringrose
Robbie Henshaw might be suffering the biggest dead leg known to man after missing his third consecutive game with the injury and in his absence Ireland struggled to get a rhythm going in midfield with Garry Ringrose replacing Chris Farrell in the centres against France and finally adding some juice to the Irish backline.
There's not much to it really. Bundee Aki is up the guts and into them and Ringrose is the guile and grace that Ireland have desperately missed this season. Very hard to see Schmidt straying away from this pair.
11. Jacob Stockdale
14. Keith Earls
15. Rob Kearney
Jordan Larmour was excellent against France and you have to imagine his time will come sometime very soon but Schmidt has backed Kearney through every storm that he's faced and will most likely pick the Leinster full-back to go again against Wales given how good he was against Scotland earlier in the campaign.
As for Stockdale and Earls, they're the two best finishers in Irish Rugby. No real need to look elsewhere.