THE relevance of the busy Christmas schedule of matches for an emerging group of exciting young Irish players cannot be exaggerated.
The hope is that, by the new year, some of these players will figure prominently in Declan Kidney's plans for the Six Nations. At the very least, they must all be afforded the opportunity to take part in the annual training camp held between St Stephen's Day and New Year's Eve.
There will always be a place in the Irish squad for experience and true brilliance, but the infusion of youth that so energised the November internationals must not only be applauded, but also encouraged.
In November, Craig Gilroy's emergence was like a shot of adrenaline to an Irish side that had come up short against South Africa. Similarly, while his defensive capabilities are unknown at the highest level, Simon Zebo is a game-changer.
Dave Kilcoyne is another who will surely improve as he gets more comfortable and confident, while the imminent return from injury of Luke Fitzgerald – still only 25 – is hugely exciting.
Room will always be made for the veterans. Brian O'Driscoll's return to the squad after surgery is a given. Paul O'Connell will, fitness allowing, also be accommodated in the new year, while Ronan O'Gara's continuing excellence for Munster means he will remain an integral part of the Six Nations squad.
But by the very nature of things, Ireland's team has to be in a constant state of evolution, and when exciting players come on the scene they must be encouraged to grow, improve and put the incumbents under pressure.
Iain Henderson ( Ulster, 2 Ireland senior caps)
Nominally selected as a back-row forward (blindside), he is seen as a rangy, athletic flanker in the Tom Croft mould.
At 6ft 6ins and 116 kgs he has the look of a second-row. He has good hands, is good in the air, and has the mobility that suits the type of game Ireland played against Argentina, which is fast-paced and high-tempo, and his work-rate is second to none.
There is an air of uncertainty about the future of the second-rows.
O'Connell's continuing injury issues are a cause for great concern. If – and hopefully when – he does come back from his latest injury, he will certainly be one of the players Ireland will rely on.
How the game is evolving, though – especially how Ireland played against Argentina, with a fast off-loading game played at pace – a very athletic second-row would fit the bill.
Henderson is still on a development contract with Ulster and only made his senior debut last April, but he has been a revelation at senior level and has shown no signs of being over-awed by the speed of his rise to prominence.
People have been tripping over themselves anointing McCarthy as Ireland's future, but the likes of O'Connell, and now Henderson, will certainly have plenty to say about that.
Henderson has two Ireland senior caps and international experience at U-19 and U-20 levels and the Queen's player is regarded as one with a bright future. He has just nine senior caps with Ulster to date, but with Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller out of commission for Ulster for the foreseeable future, Henderson will be putting in shifts in the second-row, and this will be a chance for him to show he can improve his workrate and stake his claims ahead of the Six Nations.
Peter O'Mahony (Munster, 9 caps)
The only issue with O'Mahony is where to play him. There has been a suggestion that Munster coach Rob Penney sees him as a No 8 in the long term and he has played there from time to time for them when James Coughlan has been out of commission.
There isn't a lot of evidence pointing to his suitability for the role at the base of the scrum, though.
His best performances have come when he has been on either flank. When he came onto the scene last season – and it's astonishing that it has been only one season – he was seen as a probable replacement for David Wallace at openside.
He certainly has the speed for the position – he has played on the wing for Cork Constitution in the All-Ireland League – and he also has very good hands, and he's a line-out option.
The emergence of Dave O'Callaghan as a quality option at blindside for Munster does cloud the issue, while Sean Dougall and CJ Stander add considerably to the options Penney has to choose from when everyone is fit.
The attritional nature of back-row play means that it's unlikely everyone will be fit at the same time, but if they are, Penney will have a couple of hard questions to answer.
O'Mahony has been the one to lose out in the past but there is a real argument for developing him as a long-term prospect by allowing him to get comfortable in one position.
O'Mahony has bulked up considerably since first breaking onto the scene and is now far more able for the rigours of international rugby.
He is a phenomenal talent and, with Ferris still recovering from injury, this is an opportunity for O'Mahony to really make a statement over the coming weeks.
Darren Cave (Ulster, 3 caps)
The so-called 'Golden Generation' were absolutely reliant on O'Driscoll, John Hayes, O'Gara and O'Connell staying fit and healthy.
Alternatives to the latter three have been found – although O'Connell and O'Gara remain extremely relevant – but there has been a worrying lack of quality centres putting their hands up for consideration. It is unpalatable to think of the day when O'Driscoll retires, but Ireland will need an alternative at some stage in the not too distant future.
Cave showed well in the game against Fiji last month and is a real attacking talent. His defence is excellent and he also has the right pedigree from his days as an U-20 international (2007).
Barring further injury, O'Driscoll is likely to return to the Irish side for the Six Nations but he has given a broad hint that he will be hanging up his boots after the Lions tour, at international level at least.
At the moment, Keith Earls and Cave are the only real alternatives and while Earls is regarded as being the more likely candidate to replace O'Driscoll, that succession is not set in stone.
Ulster play Leinster tomorrow night and Munster on December 29, when Cave and Earls could well go head to head. Cave has lots of experience at provincial level, with 91 senior Ulster caps to his credit (83 as starter) and he also has the experience of being part of Ireland's tour to New Zealand during the summer.
He and his Ulster team-mate Luke Marshall are ones to watch, with Cave the more developed prospect at this juncture.
(Leinster, 16 caps)
He's an inside-centre who does very well on the wing. Rather than torment himself about the fact that he's playing out of position on the left wing for Leinster, McFadden is embracing the fact that he's getting a run of matches.
His favoured position is inside-centre but he has the speed for the wing and is very strong defensively. Those qualities, and his versatility, make him invaluable to Leinster, and he has also proven he is capable at international level.
Tommy Bowe's misfortune will open up a spot on the Irish right wing for the Six Nations. There will be an undignified scramble for that spot – Earls, Zebo, McFadden, Andrew Trimble, Gilroy – and on the opposite flank.
No one really stands out as a certainty for either position and a strong showing over the Christmas/New Year period could well be decisive when Kidney selects his squad and starting team.
McFadden has 16 Ireland caps and four tries. He also has plenty of international experience at underage level.
He is currently benefiting from an extended run on the wing for Leinster and this can only do his prospects of further international recognition good. He is not as exciting going forward as speed merchants like Gilroy and Zebo, but he does look to have a stronger defensive game, which may prove crucial in international selections.
He is also an auxiliary kicking option from the tee – he has greater distance in his kicks than Sexton – and being able to switch seamlessly between centre and wing is another plus on his side.
There is a spot at inside-centre there for the taking. Gordon D'Arcy cannot go on forever and he has not been as effective in recent years.
Perhaps that has a lot to do with his long-time partner O'Driscoll's lengthy absences through injury, but it is an inescapable reality that time is marching on for those remaining 'Golden Generation' players.
The No 12 shirt is one that is also being eyed covetously by McFadden and there is also the possibility – remote as it is – that O'Driscoll might consider swapping inside and prolonging his magnificent career.
That is unlikely, though, and judging on Marshall's performance there against Fiji and the glowing reports he is receiving in Ulster, the time is surely approaching when the youngster will make the step up.
Indeed, Kidney referenced his lack of game-time – due to injury – with Ulster as a reason for his opting for D'Arcy in the November internationals. It isn't helping that Paddy Wallace is still seen as the stronger contender in Ulster, and Marshall did only get 11 and 12 minutes in the two games against Northampton. But he is well regarded.
If he gets a sustained run in the Ulster team over the Christmas period, then he will surely do his chances of making the Six Nations squad no end of good.
Others who could benefit from a good Christmas
(Leinster, 5 caps)
The blindside flanker has five senior international caps but promises to add greatly to that tally. He is a little unfortunate, given the high level of traffic in the Ireland back-row. But he remains a real option.
He was missed by Leinster at the weekend, highlighting his growing importance to the side. If he can pick up where he left off before the concussion, he will be a real contender come February.
(Ulster, 1 cap)
He will surely benefit from Bowe's injury in Ulster and see more game time with last year's beaten Heineken Cup finalists. He can score tries, this we know after his stunning performance against Fiji. But can he defend? If he can prove this then he will again take some shifting in February.
(Munster, 3 caps)
With Rob Kearney back for the Six Nations, there is a scramble for the two wing positions. Zebo is a game-changer going forward and is great under the dropping ball ... but is his defence up to international rugby?
(Leinster, 23 Ireland caps, 1 Lions cap)
It's all too easily forgotten that Fitzgerald is a Lion. At his very best, he would be a certainty for Ireland even allowing for the increasing number of challengers who have emerged since his injury problems started. He will need to be afforded time to adjust after his career-threatening injury but once he's at his best, he will be a real contender.