Updated Jan 16th 2019, 10:36 PM

WITH KICK-OFF LOOMING, Joe Schmidt has this evening named his squad for the opening two fixtures of Ireland’s Six Nations defence.

Full details of Schmidt’s 38-man panel can be found here, and below we take a closer look at the head coach’s selection.

The West reawakens

Ultan Dillane last lined out for Ireland in 2017. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Connacht endured something of a two-year food coma having tasted so much success in 2015/16, but find themselves once again on the right trajectory under the stewardship of Andy Friend.

Five players from the western outfit have seen their provincial form rewarded with inclusion in Schmidt’s 38-man squad. Three of them — Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell — are in line to earn first caps for their country, while Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane are also included just as they were this time last year.

Scrum-half Kieran Marmion isn’t quite yet ready as he battles his way back to fitness, while lock Quinn Roux was described by Schmidt as “very close” to being selected and may yet figure deeper into the competition.

The World Rugby Coach of the Year also earmarked the Connacht outside backs as having been “consistently good” throughout the campaign, and so the likes of Tiernan O’Halloran might yet squeeze into Schmidt’s reckoning for later fixtures.

A word on Dillane, too: the 25-year-old seemed bound for stardom in both shades of green back in 2016, earning six caps over his first eight months in Schmidt’s Ireland setup. He has made just five international appearances in the two-and-a-bit years since, however — a shoulder operation which prematurely ended his 2016/17 season naturally hampering his progress.

The tragic loss of his mother, Ellen Dillane, cut short his Six Nations campaign last year and he subsequently missed out on a seat on the plane to Australia. His last cap (and second international start) came against Fiji in November 2017.

However, having recently rediscovered some of his swashbuckling form of old and committed his future to Connacht — this despite Munster’s renewed interest in taking the Tralee man ‘home’ — Dillane will seek to make up for lost time and put the hand up alongside fellow locks James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne who have risen to prominence in his absence.

Ross Byrne misses out

Byrne impressed for Leinster last weekend but has been overlooked in favour of Jack Carty in Schmidt’s 38-man squad. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

There was something imperiously nonchalant about the manner in which Ross Byrne landed a crossfield kick in Dave Kearney’s bread basket before the winger dotted down against Toulouse. If the question leading into Byrne’s fourth European start was whether or not the 23-year-old out-half could step in for Johnny Sexton in a pressure-filled, top-echelon encounter, he surely answered it.

Even allowing for his excellent form, however, perhaps the most surprising aspect to his Ireland omission is the fact that Joe Schmidt has invested so much in him since his inclusion in last summer’s touring panel for the series win in Australia.

But maybe this in itself played a minor role in Byrne losing out to Jack Carty in what Schmidt described as an “incredibly tight call”: Byrne has already been inducted into the fold and was unlikely to receive much game time in the opening two Six Nations fixtures barring an injury to Sexton, and so now might be considered the perfect time to provide the red-hot and relatively unacquainted Carty with a similar crash course in order to cultivate further depth in the 10 shirt.

While Byrne was mightily impressive on the day, Carty can of course point towards his man-of-the-match performance in Connacht’s last-gasp defeat to Leinster at the RDS — and his body of work across the season thus far — as just cause for his own inclusion in any case.

There was ever going to be room for only one of them, but in somewhat of a juxtaposition, the electric Athlone man could scarcely be considered fortunate to have been selected while Byrne can consider himself highly unfortunate to have been omitted.

Added Schmidt of Byrne, whom he himself acknowledged was “unlucky” to miss out during today’s announcement:

Strength in depth

Rory Scannell and Stuart McCloskey. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Schmidt may yet end up with three just-add-water replacement options at out-half where, not long ago, the fear was that there would be a deficiency in the position. And Ireland’s strength in depth is now striking all across the board.