Ireland look for consistency in autumn series
Ireland will continue their search for consistency as they plot the downfall of South Africa, Fiji and Argentina in the three matches which make up their autumn series.
While the Irish provinces have consistently excelled in Celtic and European competition in recent seasons, the national team has struggled to match their achievements at international level, despite a sprinkling of impressive displays.
Much attention will focus on the sides chosen by Irish coach Declan Kidney, renowned for his conservative approach to team selection.
Injuries to several key players and the selection of an extended training squad for the games offer the Munster man plenty of room for experimentation and giving youth its head.
European player of the year Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien, the previous winner of the ERC award, were not available for inclusion in the initial panel and the subsequent withdrawals of Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris have further limited the Irish coach's options.
With this in mind, Kidney may be forced to field some of the young blood at his disposal in the full Tests against South Africa and Argentina, as well as in the uncapped clash with Fiji.
"We will come up with the best formula from the players we have, based on form, experience and the best combinations - we may be relying too on some players who haven't had a lot of game time this season," explained Kidney.
Ulster's unbeaten start to the season is reflected in an increased representation in the panel and many of their players are expected to line up against their provincial team-mate Ruan Pienaar at the Aviva Stadium on 10 November.
"Our players are playing well and we are delighted when they gain recognition at international level," said Ulster assistant coach Jonny Bell, who himself wore the green shirt with distinction.
"We want to see them push on and play at the highest level and their inclusion in the squad is well deserved."
Kidney paid tribute to the production line of young players which have been produced by the northern province in recent seasons.
"The hard work put in by the Ulster coaching staff over the last three or four years is paying off and it takes input from a lot of people to put a successful side together.
"The young Ulster players have all held their own in training and they have brought some fresh ideas with them.
"We want them to buy into our system and progress, but they have the potential to wear the green jersey. It's then up to them to perform in it - we'll give them the space they need to mature."
Pienaar said it would be "strange in a way, but exciting" to come up against his provincial colleagues.
"It will be tough against a quality Ireland side, who will have a partisan home crowd behind them," said the half-back.
For the Irish, a third-placed finish in last season's Six Nations was followed by a summer tour to New Zealand which yielded three Test defeats of vastly varying degrees.
South Africa, currently ranked third in the IRB world standings, compared to Ireland's seventh position, are expected to provide a stern test.
The Springboks come into the game on the back of a mixed inaugural Rugby Championship campaign, which saw them finish third with two wins, a draw and three defeats against southern hemisphere rivals New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
The South Africans won the last meeting between the sides in Dublin in 2010, but Ireland took victory in the three previous encounters, all played in Ireland.
After an Ireland XV faces Fiji at Thomond Park, the Irish can expect a traditionally tough physical battle against the Argentines on 24 November, with the visitors, like the Irish, keen to pick up valuable world ranking points ahead of the pool draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup on 3 December.
The addition of Munster's Anthony Foley to the coaching staff as a defence specialist should provide a boost, but the issue of the captaincy is one that will have to be resolved in O'Driscoll's absence.
Kidney hinted last week that the obvious choice, Paul O'Connell, would not be given the added responsibility of wearing the armband on this occasion, leaving Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton as possible candidates.