Joe Schmidt's comment last week about it being hard to gauge readiness for international rugby on the back of Pro12 form might have had something to do with the timing of those Pro12 games – ie, in the middle of the Six Nations. With the best will in the world, they are devalued.
Even so, for those with a point to prove it is scenes like these which allow them their only opportunity to make the case for elevation.
Take Dave Kilcoyne: in November 2012 he started his Test career and was the replacement loosehead on the bench throughout the Championship, finally getting a start on the summer tour last year to North America. A year later, Jack McGrath made his debut in identical circumstances, and now he is the man directly behind Cian Healy.
Kilcoyne finds himself on the bench this afternoon in Swansea, behind James Cronin, another loosehead on a fast track. The trick for the Bohs man then will be to play what's in front of him when he comes on rather than try to leapfrog to the top of the queue in the 20 minutes or so that he gets in Italy. His frustration is probably a fraction of what Simon Zebo feels. With four tries in his last three games, it's clearly not his strike rate that doesn't appeal to Joe Schmidt, so whatever the wing is doing wrong he should have worked it out by now, and corrected it against a side who heaped a record 75 points on Treviso last weekend.
It will be interesting to see how the Italians react to that this afternoon against an Ulster side with Ruan Pienaar at 10, served by Paul Marshall getting his first start since December. Despite Ireland demands, it's a very strong Ulster backline, and Luke Marshall's release gives the midfield a formidable look to it. Both John Afoa and Nick Williams are missing as they are back in New Zealand briefly for personal reasons.
Connacht hope to back up their win over Edinburgh last weekend with their fourth win of the season over Zebre, who conveniently were in their Heineken Cup pool. Dan Parks returns at outhalf instead of the injured Craig Ronaldson in what is otherwise an all Ireland-qualified team.
Sunday Indo Sport