Ireland added a first series victory on Australian soil since 1979 to a Six Nations grand slam, and coupled with Leinster’s success this year, the level of competition for places in the Irish squad, never mind team, has never been so high.

There are a number of players who, barring injury or a catastrophic run of form next season, should be confident of a starting spot in the team. 

It is hard to imagine Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander with a jersey numbered higher than 15 for next year's World Cup.

Rob Kearney has been keeping a tight grip of the full-back position and is a loyal lieutenant of Schmidt since he arrived on Irish shores, so looks well placed to fend off the challengers for the full-back position.

That would leave five positions still up for grabs. Here are the those in the mix.


Keith Earls, the 2018 Players’ Player of the Year is in the form of his life and has been rejuvenated in green in the past 18 months. The Munster flyer looks to be in pole position for a wing slot.

The other wing, be that left or right, might be more of a talking point. Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale is the man at the top of the queue after six tries in the victorious Six Nations campaign and some eye-catching runs on the way to securing the Championship.

The 22-year-old was given the nod for the first and third Tests against Australia, but questions persist around the defensive side of his game. He was exposed for the Wallabies’ only try of the game in Sydney after shooting out of the line, and there were moments in the Six Nations which would have been a cause for concern for management.

He is still developing and learning as a player, but the question is simple. Is it worth gambling on his defensive game in order to unleash his talent in attack?

Jordan Larmour is someone who is likely to put more pressure on for a start. Schmidt is inclined, thus far at least, to keep provincial team-mate Kearney in situ in the 15 jersey, so Larmour’s versatility is a boon in terms of cover, but means a wing position may offer the best route to force his way into the team.

Andrew Conway made a try-scoring appearance in the second Test before he was forced off the field and a good run of form next season would see the Leinster man very much in the frame for selection.

Verdict: Stockdale's to lose


Robbie Henshaw looks nailed on to start, but who will join him? The answer could lie in the tactical approach from Schmidt, and what jersey Henshaw is given.

The 25-year-old can operate at 12 and 13, where his defensive nous is an essential part of the Schmidt game plan.

Bundee Aki was his partner in the deciding Test against the Wallabies, the same midfield pairing for the first two games of the Six Nations before Henshaw dislocated his shoulder against Italy.

It is perhaps the strongest defensive combination, but Garry Ringrose at outside centre offers a range of passing and guile that carries more threat on the front foot.

Since Aki joined the Irish set-up, the three have rarely been fully fit at the same time and vying for two places. That is quite the selection headache, while Chris Farrell put in a man-of-the-match performance against Wales before he too joined the casualty list.

All things being equal it is a straight choice between Aki and Ringrose, a decision which could be based in part on opposition and offensive strategy.

Verdict: Aki to be squeezed out


With Tadhg Furlong locking down the scrum, it is on the other side of the coal face where there is more focus. The Irish management must be delighted to have Cian Healy and Jack McGrath battling it out for the number one jersey.

McGrath furthered his reputation with a fine contribution off the bench as the Lions drew the series in New Zealand last summer, but struggled on his return back to Leinster.

Playing catch-up after missing the start of pre-season, form and injury saw Healy move ahead in the pecking order for both club and country, though McGrath has stuck to the task and was chosen for the deciding Test against the Aussies, putting in eight tackles before departing at the hour mark.

Healy has returned to the kind of form that made him one of the most feared looseheads in world rugby before he endured his own injury woes. Now he is back and as effective as ever in the tight.

How they fare for Leinster next season could be the deciding factor.

Verdict: Continued rotation


Captain Rory Best will be 37 years of age by time the squad touch down in Japan for their World Cup campaign. His performances have shown little signs that age is catching up with the Ulster man, but Seán Cronin and Niall Scannell will be hoping to apply pressure on the 111-cap international.

Best is a natural leader, a consistent performer and a hugely popular and respected member within the squad. He was absent for the tour Down Under, and whether Scannell or Cronin can do enough to dislodge Best will depend on their respective performances next season.

The Munster hooker appears to have the edge on Cronin, who is often used as an impact replacement rather than trusted from the off.

Verdict: Captain to keep starting role


James Ryan, who has only lost one professional game as a player, looks set for a long career in the second row, but there has been chopping and changing in this area in 2018, admittedly often injury enforced.

Iain Henderson, as things stand, is the preferred partner. He started alongside Ryan for the victories in Paris and Twickenham, and also the first Test in Brisbane.

The Ulster lock struggled to shake off a minor knee injury which allowed Devin Toner back in, another player who Schmidt places great trust in. The towering lock has flourished under his tutelage at Leinster and Ireland, with the majority of his caps coming under the Kiwi.

Tadhg Beirne’s return to Ireland provides another option even if he is more likely to operate as a flanker, while Quinn Roux remains a regular in the squad.

Verdict: Ryan and Henderson