With a season left until the World Cup, this is the time for peripheral players to start making a case. Others may need a big season to guarantee future careers, while others have been threatening to break out for a while, and could use a big season to show that they can be the names the provinces build their teams around for years to come.
Leinster - Luke McGrath
We all expected McGrath to break out last season, and while I have my theories as to why he didn't, this year there is perhaps some pressure on him to succeed. Both Reddan and Boss are a year closer to retirement which helps, while his main young competitor has been given a loan deal to Connacht for the season.
While he has a safety net of having signed his first full professional contract last season, due to run out in 2016, there are a number of talented scrumhalves being churned out by Girvan Dempsey's academy and the Leinster schools; with Nick McCarthy and Charlie Rock showing some talented signs. All this means is that McGrath will have to have a year much like Noel Reid's last season to ensure that he can be the future Lion some have tipped him to be. And who knows, of all positions in the Irish camp, scrumhalf is one of the most shallow, and after Conor Murray made the World Cup squad in 2011 based on one full season, maybe this time McGrath has a chance.
Munster - Sean Dougall
It's quite hard to pick a player that Munster, Ireland and the player need to have a big season. Most of the players are either established already, or I don't believe have a huge amount of growth left in them. An ideal candidate would have been an inside centre, but I'm not convinced that 27 year old Ivan Dineen, or 23 year old Cian Bohane can push on, or will be given the chance to.
So instead, I think Sean Dougall (24), can keep growing. He pushed Tommy O'Donnell hard last year, and even started ahead of O'Donnell is several big games. Ireland can always use options at openside, and in Munster there are two very good options. Munster and Ireland could really use a big season from Dougall because either a) he beats O'Donnell for a spot, and starts to become a viable option for Ireland, or b) he pushes O'Donnell, causing him to grow into a viable option for Ireland.
Long story short, an in form Dougall should be good for Ireland, with a Munster openside pushing for inclusion in Joe's squads.
Ulster - Conor Joyce
Losing Stephen Ferris would cripple most sides, but Ulster managed to nearly pull a great season out of the bag. They do however need their other players to step up in his place though. With Iain Henderson almost certainly moving into the second row, and only Robbie Diack and Chris Henry with meaningful experience in the backrow, I'm backing last years Ireland under 20 blindside flanker Conor Joyce to make a big step up and will get some meaningful minutes.
Sean Reidy and Charlie Butterworth are two new signings with limited experience, but Joyce is one of the brightest prospects to come out of the Ulster academy, and could see himself in important matchday squads a lot this season.
Connacht - Caolan Blade
Blade is one of the most talented players in the Connacht academy right now. Highly rated among the Connacht staff, Blade made his first Pro12 appearance towards the end of the season last year after only one year in Nigel Carolan's academy.
Kieran Marmion has started 47 of 48 games for Connacht in the last two seasons, which means he will not be able to continue his remarkable run. The IRFU player welfare system will ensure Marmion does get a few rests this year too. With Frank Murphy and Paul O'Donohue gone from the squad, and despite John Cooney and Ian Porter's arrival, I'm backing Blade to show that not only will he be no.2 to Marmion, but if he works hard, he could be a threat to Marmion's monopoly on the Connacht no.9 jersey in the coming years.
Agree or disagree? Questions and comments always welcome. Did I miss anyone?
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