Ten of the incumbents are likely to be still standing when the reshuffle is over: (back row, left to right) Eamon Ryan, Batt O'Keeffe, Micheál Martin, Mary Hanafin and John Gormley; (front row, l-r) Noel Dempsey, Brian Lenihan, Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan and Dermot Ahern

FORGET Guinness Fantasy Rugby or Fantasy Premier League, the only game in town in the coming days will be fantasy cabinet selection. Until Brian Cowen stands up in the Dáil at some point in the next fortnight to announce the details of his reshuffled cabinet, everyone who is interested in politics can get to play taoiseach and try to guess who will make the final cut.

In theory, there are 15 cabinet places up for grabs but most of those are already effectively taken. Unless the taoiseach is planning a repeat of Albert Reynolds's extraordinary purge of February 1992 – which is pretty unlikely given his cautious nature – ten of the incumbents will still have their feet under the cabinet table when the process is over. They are Cowen (presumably), Brian Lenihan, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Micheál Martin, Batt O'Keeffe, Mary Hanafin, Mary Coughlan, John Gormley and Eamon Ryan.

Willie O'Dea is gone and Martin Cullen, who was never a Cowen favourite and is now seriously incapacitated by a back injury, is certain to join him on the back benches. That leaves three ministers with question marks hanging over their future: Mary Harney, Brendan Smith and Eamon Ó Cuív.

The smart money says Harney and Smith will survive the cull. Harney was seen as vulnerable as she is the first independent cabinet member since James Dillon 60 years ago and is far from certain to contest the next general election. However, there are a factors in her favour. First, the taoiseach clearly rates Harney, regarding her as a safe pair of hands, a strong media performer and somebody who, slowly but surely, has brought about improvements in the health service.

Replacing Harney also risks creating an expectation of instant improvements in the health service, which is simply not realistic given the vested interests resisting reform. Nor is there a queue of eager applicants looking to take over the department Cowen himself nicknamed 'Angola'. Unless Harney signals she has had enough – and there are no indications of that – she will stay in her dual role as health minister and guiding hand to younger ministers.

Brendan Smith is one the lowest-profile ministers and, with the next general election campaign likely to be contested as much in the media as anywhere else, he could be vulnerable. However, he hasn't done anything wrong in agriculture – in fact he came through the pork crisis well – and most senior government figures expect him to survive.

Eamon Ó Cuív's future looks less secure. He is not close to Cowen, but his biggest asset is geography. If Ó Cuív is dropped, it would leave the entire west coast, from Kerry up to Leitrim, without a cabinet minister. That could be countered by elevating either Tony Killeen in Clare or Dara Calleary from Mayo from the junior ranks into the cabinet.

However, while Killeen is regarded as highly competent, he hardly represents the new broom people feel is required to restore the government's fortunes. Calleary, who is well-regarded and a good media performer with a decent Fianna Fáil pedigree, would certainly fall into that category. But his relative inexperience – he was elected to the Dáil only in 2007 – may count against him.

He could, however, fill a new role as super-junior minister in the Department of Finance, with a remit for public sector reform (likely to be a key component of next December's budget), taking some of the workload from Brian Lenihan. European minister Dick Roche is also said to be in the frame for this position.

Close observers say it is "a toss-up" as to whether Ó Cuív survives but the possibility that he might end up as Willie O'Dea's replacement in the Department of Defence can't be ruled out.

One thing that is certain is his department – Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (dubbed 'Craggy Island' by civil servants) – will not survive in its current form. The most plausible scenario is that it will be merged with Arts, Sports and Tourism, but there are many possible combinations. The "gaeltacht" part could go to education for example, while "rural" could end up in agriculture.

It won't be the only restructuring going on. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan's Enterprise, Trade and Employment is unlikely to be left alone. The department is seen as unwieldy and a new souped-up Department of Enterprise could emerge, with a renewed focus on job creation and innovation. The word is that Coughlan won't be filling that role. Cowen likes the tánaiste and probably feels she is being unfairly treated by sections of the media but, although she has clearly upped her game in recent months, it's clear a change would benefit both the government and the Tánaiste. One option would be for her to remain with the other parts of her old department – trade and tourism would be one of many possibilities.

There has been much speculation about a new department of economic planning, which was tried briefly between 1977 and 1979, much to the chagrin of the Department of Finance, which jealously guards its patch. Charlie Haughey dumped the new department on becoming Taoiseach. The idea of bringing it back would be to allow for more strategic, long-term planning. However, given that the Taoiseach is limited to 15 departments, it seems likely an economic planning department and a souped-up Department of Enterprise will be rolled into one.

Ministers who could head this new department include Noel Dempsey, Eamon Ryan, Micheál Martin, Dermot Ahern and Mary Hanafin, although the latter is likely to be needed in the politically sensitive Department of Social Affairs, particularly as that is likely to be the new home of the troubled Fás training agency.

So with two or three likely vacancies, who will make the jump to the cabinet? More than a half a dozen names are possible and arguably none of them is demanding inclusion in the way, for example, Brian Lenihan did in 2007. As discussed, Dara Calleary and Tony Killeen are in the mix, with the latter offering a mid-western alternative to Willie O'Dea.

John Curran is close to Cowen, well-respected and based in Dublin (the key area for any general election). He has been tipped as a possible occupant of a new department of arts, sport and community affairs, given his track record as junior minister with responsibility for the national drugs strategy. But as a relatively low-key politician, he might not have enough of a reputation among the media to make the jump.

Billy Kelleher certainly has the dynamism but Cowen may have a problem with the geographical imbalance of having three cabinet ministers in Cork. Conor Lenihan would shore up a seat for the government in Dublin South West, where it struggled badly in the local elections, and he is a decent media performer.

Pat Carey, chief whip, is probably the outstanding candidate, a poor performance 10 days ago on Morning Ireland not withstanding. However, given the recent debacle in which the government came perilously close to losing a Dáil vote, the Taoiseach may be reluctant to lose him from this vital role.

The same goes for Barry Andrews. Cowen rates him and he already sits at cabinet as a super-junior. But, with a children's referendum to come, it might not make sense to have to introduce a new minister in this area.

Whoever gets the nod from Cowen, it will certainly clear some spaces on the junior ministerial benches. Mary White, Paul Gogarty or Ciarán Cuffe will take over from Trevor Sargent. Fianna Fáil's Seán Connick is likely to win favour. There are high hopes for him but the fact he is from Wexford is also important given the inevitable departure from cabinet of Waterford-based Martin Cullen.

Niall Blaney, who returned to the Fianna Fáil fold before the last general election, is also tipped as a junior. Others being mentioned in speculation include Margaret Conlon from Cavan-Monaghan, Clare's Timmy Dooley, Darragh O'Brien in Dublin North, Dublin South Central's Seán Ardagh, Limerick West's John Cregan, and Cork South Central's Michael McGrath.

The feeling in Fianna Fáil circles is that, such is the momentum behind the reshuffle, the new appointments are likely to come sooner rather than later and possibly even this week.

Given the restructuring of departments involved, that may be an unrealistic forecast. The Taoiseach may quite like the idea of fantasy cabinet selections monopolising political debate and newspaper headlines for a little bit longer.