Jonathan Sexton may have one eye on a red jersey come South Africa next summer but the season begins on Saturday week with the queue for his green one growing by what seems to be the minute.
Ross Byrne and Jack Carty have both worn an Irish kit with a No. 10 on the back in the last year, Joey Carbery will muscle his way back towards the head of the queue once fit and Billy Burns has spent time in Irish camp since his arrival at Ulster from the UK.
Added to that traffic jam of talent now is Ian Madigan, who has joined Burns in Belfast having returned from four years abroad, and whose second chapter in the Irish professional scene started with an encouraging few words from Ireland head coach Andy Farrell only last week.
“It was a serious boost for Andy Farrell to give me a shout out given I haven’t played a whole lot in the last 12 months,” said the 31-year old who will have to compete with both Burns and Bill Johnston for starting rights at the Kingspan.
“For me personally, coming back and being able to play for one of the Irish provinces and playing for Ireland as one of my main goals has really focused me with my training and given me something to aim at.”
He went further a sentence or two later: Playing for Ireland is his “number one” goal.
Madigan’s stints with Bordeaux-Begles and Bristol Bears ultimately ended in disappointing fashion but he remains a richly talented out-half whose performances in the 2012-13 season when a regular starter in place of an injured Sexton were nothing short of superb.
Joe Schmidt was his head coach then and Madigan earned 30 Irish caps under the Kiwi’s watch as well before flying the IRFU’s coop in 2016. He has a long way to go to get back to where he once was but he knows that and he clearly doesn’t feel done yet. The early word from Ulster is positive.
His fitness is not in question, his integration into the squad and the system eased by his familiarity with so many of the players and the environment, and by his joy at working with coaches who seem to read off the same page.
Dwayne Peel’s openness and creativity as backs and attack coach appeal to him. Jared Payne’s approach to defence, while new, has been embraced just as eagerly by a man who is lightly-raced in a competitive sense.
Will he make it back to Broadway?
It’s a long shot but the season about to dawn will be the most intense yet. Players will get injured and lose form. Rotation will be key, not least in Ulster where they will likely face PRO14 as well as Champions Cup knock-out duties before the new 2020-21 season kicks in.
He will get his chance to shine.
“I start every season and strongly believe it is going to be my best year. There have been times when I have said to myself that I don’t know if I have really believed it because I might have been carrying an injury into it, or my form wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, or whatever.
“I’ve got a really good feeling about this year. I’m happy about how I’m training. The way the team is set up with Dwayne in attack will really suit my game. Hopefully it all comes together and this is going to be my best season and I can’t wait for it to get started.”
Where rugby giveth, though, rugby taketh away. Tens may be two a penny right now but second row stocks are being tested ahead of the four provinces’ competitive returns at the Aviva Stadium with two Guinness PRO14 interpros next Saturday and Sunday week.
Munster’s Tadhg Beirne is out with what is only deemed a minor issue but Leinster’s James Ryan will sit out a few months of action after shoulder surgery and now Ulster’s Iain Henderson has been crossed off the duty roster until mid-October with a hip problem.
“Yeah, that was a planned operation,” said Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
“His hip has been giving him trouble for a while. We have been talking about when to get the hip operation done. Unfortunately the Covid situation obviously meant that a lot of surgeries were delayed. We needed to get this done and we got it done as soon as we could.”