It was a rare weekend of Irish success in the European Cup, with two of the three provinces winning on the same weekend for the first time this term.
Munster and Ulster were largely at full strength, while Leinster took the chance to blood some of their young prospects in Europe for the first time.
With all three provinces playing back-to-back on Saturday, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt could only attend one game, and he chose to visit Limerick and take in Munster’s joust with Stade Francais. The Kiwi will no doubt look back at the footage of the weekend’s other games too as planning for the Six Nations continues in earnest.
Here we take a look at the players who may have caught Schmidt’s eye this weekend.
15. Jared Payne (Ulster)
In his first game back since a broken foot sustained in the World Cup, the 30-year-old looked calm and assured behind his teammates. Accused by many Irish supporters of not being daring enough in attack from midfield, the New Zealand-born back is a much more creative force when attacking from the deeper full back berth.
Solid under the high ball and a reliable last line of defence, the emergence of so many talented centres in the past six months could see Payne competing for a full back role rather than a midfield shirt in the months ahead.
14. Keith Earls (Munster)
The Moyross man didn’t see much ball when stationed on the right wing on Saturday afternoon but on the few occasions he did, he wreaked havoc. His exceptional try on the stroke of half time turned the game in Munster’s favour, and his jinking footwork made him a constant threat every time he got ball in hand.
The 28-year-old finished the game in the centre and played an important role in the build up to the province’s final and matching clinching try. He remains one of the deadliest finishers available to Joe Schmidt, while his defence continues to be underrated.
13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
The hype is beginning to seem merited. This was the biggest challenge of the young man’s professional career to date, and he stared expectation in the face and duly delivered. The centre has proven at various stages in separate games he has the capabilities to be a star, but Saturday evening’s performance offered us an insight into how good he can be.
Fearless in attack, the 20 year old has a rugby brain beyond his limited years, more often than not taking the right option while his defensive game is solid and resolute. Still has to develop physically but the potential is real.
12. Stuart McCloskey (Ulster)
Spent most of the game operating on the back foot behind an Ulster pack that was bullied by their English opponents, but McCloskey once again showed he’s ready for the step up to international level.
Opposition defences are on high alert whenever the 23-year-old is fed the ball, and his wide ranging skill set means he’s the perfect player for Schmidt to build his midfield around. As well as excelling himself, he has also brought the best out of many provincial teammates this term.
11. Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
The 24 year old continues to be one of the great enigmas of Irish rugby. Gilroy has an incredible amount of attacking potential in his locker, but too often goes missing for large portions of games. However, his speed and footwork means he’s a constant menace when his side has go forward ball.
He is subject to the occasional lapse in concentration though, and can be weak defensively. He picked up a yellow on Saturday but did show enough attacking potential to again provide glimpses as to the player he could become.
10. Ian Madigan (Leinster)
If ever the IRFU needed a reminder as to how good a player they’ve let slip through their fingers, Saturday evening proved just that. Madigan fizzed the ball out to his backs while he kicked solidly both out of hand and off the tee.
The 26-year-old showcased his array of talents to keep Leinster’s youthful side in the ascendency throughout the entire game. The out half combined a fine passing game with a dangerous running threat, which made him a difficult proposition for Bath to contain.
9. Luke McGrath (Leinster)
Stranded behind two aging Irish internationals for much of the season to date, McGrath delivered a spritely performance behind a young pack.
The 22-year-old has been nipping at the heels of Eoin Reddan and Issac Boss for some time now, but this outing on Saturday should be enough to convince Leo Cullen that he deserves more responsibility, and game time, between now and the season’s end.
8. CJ Stander (Munster)
Once again the standout player for Munster at the weekend and, once again, the most effective of all this weekend’s Irish-qualified players in action. The South African has become a complete all round, modern day backrow offering a threat in every facet of the game.
Another try when it was needed most and another Man of the Match outing stashed away. He’s worked his way into the core of the Munster organisation and the fans’ hearts, he must be given a chance to do the same in green.
7. Tommy O’Donnell (Munster)
O’Donnell’s return has alleviated some of the pressure on Stander in recent weeks and the open side has been busy trying to make up for lost time. A hip injury sustained against Wales in a World Cup warm up game cost the 28-year-old six months of his career, but it has taken a lot less time for the Tipperary native to get back to his best.
This was his most impressive performance for the province since he returned a month ago, and the flanker will be eager to force his way back into Schmidt’s plans with a couple more outings of this ilk.
6. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
Despite being just 25, (Mike McCarthy aside) Ruddock was the most experienced member of the Leinster pack that triumphed over Bath on Saturday evening. The utility flanker is certainly compiling a strong case to fill the vacant number 6 shirt when the Six Nations gets up and running in less than a month’s time.
A strong carrier and a tireless worker at the breakdown, the Welsh-born backrow will be keen to add significantly to his six international caps in the coming weeks.
5. Dave Foley (Munster)
It’s been a frustrating twelve months for the lock, who this time last year was a credible contender for a Six Nations starting role. Foley’s form has dipped in the intervening year, one in which has seen him fall down the pecking order at Munster.
The 27-year-old grabbed his chance on Saturday, by being solid in the lineout on his own ball, and by being a nuisance for the opposition on theirs. He was also prominent in the loose and disruptive at the breakdown in what was one of Munster’s best outings this season.
3. Tadgh Furlong (Leinster)
The tight head berth at provincial level for Leinster and international level is very much up for grabs at the moment, and Furlong made the most of his audition on Saturday with a fine 46-minute showing.
The 23-year-old may lag slightly behind Marty Moore in the scrummaging stakes but he is still no shrinking violet in the set-piece, and is a far more formidable athlete. The Wexford man offers Leinster plenty around the park, and he highlighted that this weekend.
2. Mike Sherry (Munster)
This was another strong showing from Sherry as he continues to rebuild his career after a litany of injuries over the past couple of seasons. The 27-year-old’s work out of touch was on the money all afternoon, while he has a ferocious work rate in open play.
Munster may have struggled again at scrum time but they had the edge on Stade at the lineout and the early try from a Sherry directed maul was just rewards for the hooker and his charges.
1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)
The Munster scrum struggled for a second straight weekend at the hands of their French opponents but this was largely down to the failimgs on the opposite side of the scrum as opposed to the Limerick man. Kilcoyne’s scrummaging often comes in for criticism, but up against the man who many perceive as the best tight head in world rugby at the moment, Rabah Slimani, the 27-year-old held his own.
Always prominent in the loose, the fact Kilcoyne was still going in the 75th minute due to a propping injury crisis, is a testament to a player that never throws in the towel.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena