After another bad weekend for the Irish provinces in Europe, it was only Ulster who found a win, and an impressive one at that away to Toulouse.
Joe Schmidt was an interested observer at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday as Leinster put up a brave showing against champions Toulon, but ultimately fell short in the second half. The Kiwi will now spend his Christmas mulling over the form of some players, and ponder who he can select for the Six Nations.
Since the Pool D victory over France in the World Cup, much has changed for Irish rugby, and we find ourselves facing a transitional period.
Yes, Schmidt can go for the tried and tested in the Six Nations, playing the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Mike Ross who will not be around for the next World Cup, and challenge for a third consecutive championship. However, he could opt to bleed in the young prospects as the road to Japan begins.
Here are five players we believe ought to feature this spring.
Robbie Henshaw is a shoo-in in the midfield for Ireland. However, the Connacht powerhouse is versatile, and can play at either inside or outside centre. Schmidt must decide who can partner the young centre who has been heavily linked with Leinster in recent months.
Jared Payne has been solid in defence, but has not offered enough going forward. However, Payne’s teammates at Ulster have been impressive, with Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall earning plaudits. However, perhaps the standout performer this season has been McCloskey, who is impressing in every game.
His showing against Toulouse yesterday proved he is definitely worth considering for the Ireland team.
As discussed above, at 36 Ross will not be around for much longer. Ireland need to look at other options if they hope that their scrum can enter the next World Cup as a dominant set-piece. At present, there are two standout options for the tight-head position in the form of Marty Moore and Tadhg Furlong.
Both are currently behind Ross in the Leinster pecking order, but if Schmidt is serious about building for the future, he will pick Moore as his go-to scrummager in February and March.
Conor Murray is the established starting scrum-half for Ireland, but deputies Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss are both nearing the end of their careers. Murray is not indestructible, and has been suspect in recent months, inconsistent with his handling when on the back foot.
What Ireland need is a reliable alternative, and Marmion appears to be just that. The Connacht scrum-half has been central to the western province’s success this season, and can control the tempo of a game. He is not yet the finished article, but at just 23, this will come in time.
Schmidt knows he needs a second scrum-half in his ranks. Murray is struggling at present and Marmion is the obvious choice, but needs some game time at the top level.
Josh van der Flier
Leo Cullen rates the 22-year-old higher than Jordi Murphy, so surely he must be worth looking at from an international perspective.
Van Der Flier has been one of the few positives from Leinster’s dogged start to the season, doing everything a good back row forward ought to be doing. He did not look out of his depth against the genuinely world-class back row of Duane Vermuelen, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith on Saturday.
With experience at international level, Van Der Flier can mature into a top player for Ireland.
Do we really have to justify this one? Stander has been immense for Munster this year, and was all over the park at Welford Road yesterday. His all-round footballing ability is evident in any game he plays.
As discussed, Heaslip will not be around forever, and if Schmidt wants to start building a team for the World Cup in four years, he needs to play those who will act as the cornerstone sooner rather than later.
Stander has proven that he is a world-class number eight, and there is no plausible reason that he should not start this spring.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena