Leinster's emerging stars can put their hands up
AS World Cup comedowns go, the hollowness of Murrayfield on a cold Friday night represents a shuddering return to reality, but that is the prospect facing a clutch of Ireland players as they reacquaint themselves with club rugby against Edinburgh in the Pro12.
Leo Cullen captains a side that includes fellow New Zealand 2011 campaigners Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross, while Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley also welcomes back members of Scotland's underwhelming World Cup squad.
Former Connacht coach Bradley is in familiar league territory, second from bottom with two wins from six outings but, with less squad strength than the Pro12 heavyweight sides, a returning international contingent is of particular relevance.
Thus, Bradley was happy to report an extra enthusiasm in training this week and the inclusion of full-back Chris Paterson, centre Nick de Luca and the front-row of Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Geoff Cross has increased confidence that Edinburgh can reclaim their 'bogey team' status against the European champions.
"They're good professionals and are fully switched back into Edinburgh mode so there's been a great buzz around training," said Bradley. "Their return has increased the competition for places, particularly with a full international front-row coming back, who should give us a good platform to launch our backline and our back-row, who have performed well this season."
Edinburgh take heart from a home record that shows just one defeat in six matches and includes an impressive 29-14 triumph over Munster at the end of September and a solid 19-14 win over Connacht.
While league points and momentum heading into next weekend's clash with Munster and upcoming Heineken Cup assignments are vital for Leinster, there is no denying that the World Cup fallout has placed a focus on individual performances in key positions as Ireland seek to rebuild.
Blues coach Joe Schmidt has a vast array of talent to choose from, with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Eoin Reddan, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings expected back in the mix next week, and tonight represents an ideal opportunity for some of the younger contingent to stake their claim for the bigger challenges ahead.
With Isa Nacewa rested, Kearney makes his first Leinster appearance in over a year in the No 15 jersey Ireland need him to fill for the season, which means carrying on from his encouraging form in New Zealand to the point where Nacewa has to be accommodated elsewhere.
He has his brother David and fellow Lion and Grand Slam winner Luke Fitzgerald completing an attack-minded back three, while it is a big night also for the young centre partnership of Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley.
McFadden is a live contender for the Ireland 12 jersey but did not get the World Cup exposure he was seeking as a late injury to Tommy Bowe forced him onto the wing against Russia -- a big game against De Luca tonight could have lasting repercussions.
Isaac Boss brings experience and bulk at scrum-half but the primary focus will be on how Jonathan Sexton(left) travels outside him.
It was a frustrating World Cup for the Leinster out-half, who found himself on the bench once again having seemingly nailed down the slot after his compelling performance against England at the end of the Six Nations.
Sexton needs to kick on from here and returning to the Leinster fold could be just the spur he needs, particularly with the verve outside him and the fact his direct opponent is 19-year-old debutant Harry Leonard.
Another area of considerable strength, where Heinke van der Merwe has excelled his season in Healy's absence at loose-head -- evidenced by the fact that Jamie Hagan cannot make the squad as Ross reclaims the No 3 jersey, with Nathan White on the bench.
White's solidity since moving from Waikato has helped to erase the memories of Clint Newland's awkward spell in Dublin last season but, from an Irish perspective, Hagan needs to assert himself at the province sooner rather than later.
At hooker, Cronin is well aware of the qualities of Richardt Strauss, on the bench tonight, as he looks to lay down a marker on his return from the World Cup.
Another position where Ireland need players holding their hands up, and it was encouraging to hear Schmidt highlighting the contribution of Devin Toner this season.
Luke Charteris pointed the way for 6'10" second-rows at the World Cup and Toner has a lot to play for alongside the steadying influence of captain Cullen.
It would have been encouraging to see Rhys Ruddock complete an all-Irish back-row next to Kevin McLaughlin and Dominic Ryan, but Old Belvedere's AIL hero Leo Auva'a is the more natural No 8 and Ruddock must do with a place on the bench.
With O'Brien, Jennings and Heaslip poised to return, it is a big night for the loose trio and having Ryan in the No 7 jersey is encouraging -- he is a player who is threatening a big future in a position where Ireland have traditionally lacked depth.
verdict -- Leinster
Edinburgh gained a bonus-point win in this fixture last season. They will be lifted by their international returnees and have a match-winner in wing Tim Visser. However, Leinster bring a lot of attacking ability to Scotland as well as plenty of individual motivation -- it should be enough to garner victory in what threatens to be a close-fought encounter.
EDINBURGH -- C Paterson; S Webster, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; H Leonard, G Laidlaw; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross; E Lozada, S Turnbull; D Denton, R Grant, S McInally. Reps: S Lawrie, K Traynor, L Niven, G Gilchrist, N Talei, M Blair, J Thompson, T Brown.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; D Kearney, E O'Malley, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin, D Ryan, L Auva'a. Reps: R Strauss, J McGrath, N White, S Sykes, R Ruddock, J Cooney, I Madigan, F Carr.
REF -- L Hodges (Wales)