DUBLIN: Ireland will defend their Six Nations title at virtual full strength after coach Joe Schmidt named a 38-man squad loaded with experience for the world number two side's opening matches.
After losing just one game in a dominant 2018 that included a Six Nations Grand Slam, test series victory in Australia and defeat of New Zealand in Dublin, Ireland are seeking to win back-to-back titles for the second time in six years.
Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony and Johnny Sexton, who have all missed some time with injuries, were all named in the squad that Schmidt will hope emerges from this weekend's final European Champions Cup group matches unscathed.
"It's been great to watch the provincial teams doing so well in recent weeks. There have been a number of tight calls across almost every position," Schmidt said in a statement.
Schmidt name checked more than 20 other players who he said were either unlucky to have missed out or were showing promise, including flanker Dan Leavy, a key member of the Grand Slam side, who he said could well join the fold once he is fully fit.
Ireland's only absentees are injured scrumhalves Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath, who vied for the number nine jersey in November in the absence of first choice Conor Murray, who has since returned to action with Munster.
Ulster's John Cooney will begin the championship as Murray's likely understudy with Marmion's own replacement at Connacht, Caolin Blade, coming in as one of three uncapped players in the panel alongside teammates Jack Carty and Tom Farrell.
Carty's selection over Leinster's Ross Byrne and Farrell's inclusion ahead of the likes of Stuart McCloskey and Sam Arnold demonstrated the depth Schmidt now has at his disposal and the fight for places shaping up for September's World Cup squad.
Forwards: Rory Best, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Sean Cronin, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Dave Kilcoyne, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Andrew Porter, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier
Backs: Will Addison, Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway, John Cooney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Tom Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alexander Smith)