Four uncapped prospects who could force themselves into Joe Schmidt's Six Nations plans
The trend of mixed fortunes for Irish sides on the European stage continued over the weekend but, importantly, with Joe Schmidt naming his Six Nations squad tomorrow, some rising stars maintained their ascent.
Connacht and Ulster, in spite of losing, are still flying the flag in Europe as both remain in contention to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions and Challenge Cup respectively.
The Western province will certainly rue their defeat to Brive in the dying embers of a contest they failed to ever fully control, despite out scoring the French outfit by three tries to zero.
At the very least, Pat Lam and co will reflect on the missed opportunity with a view that has comprehensively defined the task at hand. Nothing less than a victory over Enisei-STM at the Sportsground will suffice if they are to make the quarter-finals.
Ulster, to be fair, found themselves ultimately steamrolled by the continent’s form outfit, Saracens. Having missed out on a bonus point, Les Kiss’ charges now have the least points of any second placed side, thus claiming one of the three runners-up spots will be a tall order, even if they were to acquire five points from their final pool game with Oyonnax at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday lunchtime.
For the traditional giants Leinster and Munster, victories over Bath and Stade Francais, though meaningless in terms of the competition, offered some redemption and signs that the bones of competitive squads are present, notably in the case of the Leo Cullen's outfit.
Joe Schmidt must navigate a Six Nations without Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll for the first time, and he will have to make do without Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and, potentially, Mike Ross and Cian Healy.
There remains other concerns.
Johnny Sexton has yet to find his consistently since returning from France. A man-of-the-match performance away to the Ospreys will hopefully be a sign of things to come. Robbie Henshaw is still not fully recovered from a hand injury, while O’Connell’s successor as captain has yet to be installed.
But enough of all the doom and gloom. The Kiwi coach, thanks to their form at provincial level, has the chance to blood in some of the unknown quantities on the international stage
Here we look at four of them:
The 23-year-old bulldozing centre had his outstanding form for Ulster this season rewarded with a place in Schmidt’s 24-hour training camp at Carton House over the festive season. And, in truth, it’s no more than he deserved.
Against Saracens his powerful drives put Ulster on the front foot on those occasions the hosts were not monopolising possession.
The Bangor man, standing at 6’3 and weighing 109kg, is an impressive specimen and extremely athletic. These qualities facilitate his ability to get over the gain-line time and again, while tying in defenders to create space for those outside him.
Though Schmidt might be nonplussed by it, McCloskey is adept at the offload and a decent all-round distributor. He brings the sort of ferocious thrust Ireland will acutely lack should Henshaw not recover in time for the tournament opener with Wales on January 7.
Irish-qualified since the World Cup, the stand-in Munster captain has been one of the few bright sparks in what has been a wholly dull period in Cork and Limerick. For what seems like the umpteenth time, the South African native was awarded man of the match for his industry against the visiting Parisians.
With an indefatigable work rate, barnstorming carries and all-round endeavour, the 25-year-old looks more than ready to be thrown into the crucible that is Test rugby. In fact, it might be worth slotting him in the place of the man he temporarily replaced as skipper at provincial level.
Without O’Mahony at blindside, and the likelihood of Jamie Heaslip keeping his spot at the base of the scrum, Stander could be a potent force for his adopted county as a number six.
At this point, young Ringrose is receiving mass applause for just lacing up his boots; such is excitement he has conjured in his 10 appearances for the Leinster this season.
Against Bath at RDS, he once more demonstrated that fast-twitch, evasive footwork and jet-heeled acceleration which has drawn comparisons with another famous Blackrock alumnus who wore the 13 jersey with such distinction.
Ringrose’s fundamentals are sound; witness his habit of carrying with both hands on the ball to keep defenders honest, while his decision making belies his years. A brave defender, who might just benefit from Jared Payne’s lack of game time. It would be hugely out of character for Schmidt to select two uncapped prospects in his midfield, so the idea of Ringrose and McCloskey lining out together is fairly fanciful, though perhaps we're in for a curve ball.
Another veteran of the January get-together, Connacht’s Kerry-born lock made a serious impression during his 10 outings for Pat Lam’s side. With no Henderson or O’Connell to call on, Schmidt’s second row options have been abbreviated. Dillane will certainly not leapfrog Devon Toner, Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan, but he might prove a useful deputy.
Looks to have all the makings of an engine room warhorse and his line out skills are steadily improving. Just being in the Irish set up over a concentrated period would be a worthwhile experience.