Players still have plenty to prove
SPARE a thought for Luke Marshall. At 21 years of age, the Ulster centre realised what had been a dream of his during his short life. He made his senior international debut with Ireland in the 2013 Six Nations.
He did so with a smile on his face, enthusiasm in his ruddy cheeks and a step in his feet that was showcased to almost devastating effect in Murrayfield when he broke twice for 43 metres inside the opening 25 minutes.
Unfortunately, this is not a season Ireland will review with any great positivity.
It has been a season that started in controversy with the stripping of the captaincy from Brian O'Driscoll and one that has been pock-marked by contentious decisions ever since.
The bright start to the championship afforded by victory over Wales has been dashed by defeats to England and Scotland. The Grand slam, the Championship and Triple Crown are gone and, for now, all that is left to play for is pride.
Defeat on Saturday will mean that Ireland, one of the pre-tournament favourites, will travel to Rome trying to avoid the ignominy of the Wooden Spoon.
Even victory over the French won't be enough to lift the disenchantment that has engulfed this year's tournament.
Paddy Jackson will also remember his Ireland debut in the 2013 Six Nations – as will Ian Madigan if he sees action on Saturday – but given the furore that has understandably raged since last Sunday night's squad announcement, this is not the debut season either would have envisaged.
Apart from the obvious sense of pride in winning for Ireland, the players still have a great deal to play for, individually if not collectively. For some, it's professional pride and for others it's a place on the plane to Australia with the Lions.
There are those who must play to repay the faith shown in them by a coach who is under increasing strain and whose decisions are being forensically examined and critiqued, with some deserving of criticism, others not.
15. Rob Kearney
It's been a tough championship for the full-back. He was the outstanding choice for the Lions four years ago, but is now struggling to make the touring party. Having to undergo back surgery disrupted his season and he is now paying the price and struggling for form. Kearney needs to finish on a high against France and Italy and then produce for Leinster if he is to force his way into Warren Gatland's plans.
Playing for? Lions place
14. Fergus McFadden
He is in bonus territory. This is his first direct involvement in the Six Nations, despite being involved in all the training camps. He is being stymied because of a lack of opportunities in the centre at club level. The reality is, he will have to do something special to hold onto the jersey.
Playing for? Convincing management he is a long-term option
13. Brian O'Driscoll
It is all about the Lions and the captaincy for O'Driscoll this season. He started off his candidacy strongly with a try against Wales. Circumstances dictated he wasn't at his sharpest against England and he was part of the general malaise against Scotland. He has two games in which to prove to Warren Gatland that he is up to the Tour.
Playing for? Lions captaincy
12. Luke Marshall
The excitement that he generated when he broke twice for 43 metres against Scotland made everyone take notice. He has a huge future ahead of him in a green shirt. Marshall will get his chance to cement his place in the team on the summer tour to Canada and America.
Playing for? The joy of playing and cementing his place
11. Keith Earls
Earls is one of the great conundrums of this Irish set-up. Is he a centre playing on the wing or a wing in the centre? Four years ago he was the Lions 'bolter,' but that's a long time ago at this stage. He is playing with more freedom of late. He has started to show glimpses of what made him so exciting a few years ago and this is hugely positive for Ireland and especially for Munster.
Playing for? Continued improvement and redemption
10. Paddy Jackson
Is he the real deal or will he be usurped by Ian Madigan? He is only 21, but he has now been placed in the position by his coach where he has to prove he is the right choice.
Playing for? Survival
9. Conor Murray
He is an outside contender for the Lions tour. His game has improved with every season. He is one of the few Ireland players who is in credit in this Championship. He is a physical scrum-half in the mould of Mike Phillips and the Wales No 9 is a favourite of Gatland. But Murray has all the attributes and a strong finish could see him force his way into the party.
Playing for? Lions
1. Cian Healy
It would be easy to say he's looking for redemption after his act of idiocy against England, but that would do an excellent player a disservice. Healy is a Lions possibility. He is excellent in open play, works hard in defence and he can scrummage. Healy has massive strength and backs himself every time to tear through the opposing tighthead. It's one of the reasons Warren Gatland will be looking closely at how he goes.
Playing for? Lions
2. Rory Best
He was one of the front-runners for the Lions Test team, but his form has not been good. There is still time for him to force his way into Gatland's plans in the final two games of the championship and in the Heineken Cup, but he needs a big improvement out of touch. His work at the breakdown remains excellent and he is a worker.
Playing for? Lions
3. Mike Ross
The suggestion is Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree gave him a 'see you during the summer' farewell when England left the Aviva. If a scrummaging tighthead is what is required, then Ross is their man. Those who criticise point to a lack of work in open play, but there are very few – if any – tightheads who spend their time charging around the pitch. Ross locks out a scrum.
Playing for? Lions Test place
4. Mike McCarthy
McCarthy is just playing for the joy of finally being a first choice Ireland international. His second coming in an Irish shirt was momentarily derailed by his knee injury, but he is really making the most of his chance.
Playing for? Making up for lost time
5. Donnacha Ryan
If he plays between the end of this Championship and Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final, it will be nothing short of a miracle. He is getting from game to game by sheer willpower at this stage. If he is fit when Gatland names his squad on April 30, he will look at the guts and sheer bloody-mindedness of the Nenagh native and could be swayed.
Playing for? Survival and Lions!
6. Peter O'Mahony
This guy is the real deal. He doesn't have a reverse gear and never takes a backward step and is immensely brave. He has repaid the faith placed in him by the management and while he does need to work on areas of his game, he is the type of character who would do well in a Lions environment. He is also a line-out option.
Playing for? At best Lions, at worst cementing his starting berth with Ireland
7. Sean O'Brien
His tackle count against Wales was enough to ensure he will be a starting Lion in June. As long as he can walk up the steps of the plane he will be in Australia. He has been one of Ireland's few standout players this season.
Playing for? Lions and improved contract
8. Jamie Heaslip
His Lions race looks run and he has not been a success as Ireland captain. He is one of the gambles that has blown up in Declan Kidney's face. At his peak he is/was world class, but hasn't been at that level for Ireland for quite some time and was fortunate to be in the team, which makes his selection as captain all the more questionable. He needs to repay Kidney's faith in appointing him as successor to O'Driscoll.
Playing for? Repaying his coach