Putting their hands up
THE Ireland squad are due to meet up between Christmas and New Year, the first get-together since their World Cup adventure ended so abruptly in Wellington.
Unlike England, there has been no calamitous fall-out from New Zealand 2011, despite both countries exiting at the same quarter-final stage.
The Irish players are fully aware they squandered a wonderful opportunity to make a first semi-final, but the encouraging level of performance in the pool stages, notably in the wins over Australia and Italy, suggests there will not be sweeping alterations to the squad for the Six Nations.
Nonetheless, there is still scope for coach Declan Kidney to mix it up a little, with the 'A' match between the Wolfhounds and the England Saxons on January 28 the ideal opportunity to assess fresh blood.
The pity is that there are not more sub-international opportunities available, which leaves the Heineken Cup as the main audition outlet, and Leinster and Munster's steady progress in Europe is encouraging for Ireland coach Kidney, while Aironi are providing Ulster with a timely chance to build confidence.
Kidney will have noted how a couple of high-profile omissions from his World Cup 30 have been pushing their names forward along with a clutch of up-and-comers who are suggesting they can step up a level.
Two years before, he was a Grand Slam-winning Lion, but 2011 has been rough for Fitzgerald.
Having returned from long-term injury, a loss of form and confidence saw him dropped for Ireland's final Six Nations explosion against England before he was controversially left out of Kidney's World Cup plans -- controversially, because there were signs towards the end of Leinster's season and in the August warm-up matches that Fitzgerald was hitting his straps once more, creating powerful arguments for having his proven quality and game-breaking potential in New Zealand.
His response to that disappointment has been admirable and Fitzgerald is buzzing again for Leinster. Not backing himself to make the line against Bath after being beautifully put into open ground by Jonathan Sexton hinted at residues of self-doubt, but Fitzgerald was prominent throughout the game and carried a spark into each involvement.
While the topic of second-centre relocation was raised once again when Brian O'Driscoll was ruled out for six months, Fitzgerald is going nicely at No 11 and strengthens Kidney's hand in that position alongside the World Cup contenders Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble.
Like Fitzgerald, having been a regular pick since Kidney took over in 2008, an injury-related loss of form, allied to the rapid rise of Conor Murray saw O'Leary become a shock exclusion from the World Cup.
Irish rugby is awash with scrum-halves at present and, while O'Leary is (commendably) prepared to move away from Munster in search of game-time, he has been reminding Kidney of why he was the go-to scrum-half for the bones of three seasons.
Firstly, O'Leary appears to have worked his way back to optimum fitness, a process which began with an AIL match in October, and he now looks in great physical nick.
And, while his Heineken Cup involvement has been limited to cameos, O'Leary's involvement in the dying stages of three tight encounters has been productive -- especially against Northampton when he conducted the 41-phase piece of folklore that culminated in Ronan O'Gara's winning drop goal.
The flanker has had his chances with Ireland before without really taking them and he fulfilled a stop-gap role in August before failing to make the World Cup cut, even after David Wallace's injury.
After Sam Warburton's mastery in the defeat by Wales, the feeling was that Ireland needed to unearth a new, specialist No 7 but, backed by Munster coach Tony McGahan, Ronan has been the form Irish open-side in the Heineken Cup, confirming that he is the best linking back-row forward available to Kidney.
As well as rounding off a glorious try against Scarlets last weekend, Ronan had a big influence in Munster's back-row getting on top of their opponents and if he maintains this level of performance, the Meath man will have to be in the mix come January.
With the jostling for O'Driscoll's No 13 jersey well under way, O'Malley has been throwing some encouraging shapes in Leinster's midfield. Fergus McFadden, who had a bit-part role at the World Cup, has been going well at 12 and 13 and got the nod next to Gordon D'Arcy against Bath.
However, O'Malley has been pushing himself forward as a specialist outside-centre, doing well again as substitute on Sunday, and continued exposure should ensure Wolfhounds involvement, at least.
Ruan Pienaar's return from injury may boost Ulster's marketing but it does little for the national cause.
Marshall was in sensational form in Pienaar's absence. The basics of his game are up to scratch and his speed around the fringes has been consistently opening defences.
Bringing on Marshall against Aironi after only 51 minutes was an act of acknowledgement by Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin and the scrum-half's high confidence was demonstrated by his tap-and-go touchdown.
Kidney has a bewildering array of options at scrum-half and, form-wise, Marshall is right up there.
Being entrusted with the Munster captaincy while Paul O'Connell and the rest of the Ireland contingent were on World Cup duty, spoke volumes about O'Mahony's stature in the province.
Getting that honour at 21 (he turned 22 not long after) suggested this would be a big season for the back-row, and so it is proving.
The step up to Heineken Cup level has not fazed him and, though he is out of next weekend's rematch with the Scarlets after taking a heavy blow to the jaw, his performances have been good enough to keep the in-form Denis Leamy in reserve.
A Wolfhounds call-up looks inevitable and, while his ability to play across the back-row makes him valuable selection-wise, in the long-term O'Mahony might be better served with regular exposure in the No 7 jersey where Ireland need cover more than at six or eight.
After losing his Ireland place at the World Cup, Sexton has been back in the groove for Leinster and was their inspiration again on Sunday.
However, behind Sexton, injury to Mat Berquist pushed Madigan to the fore and the young out-half has been growing in experience and confidence.
He was exceptional in the recent Pro12 rout of Cardiff and could get decent Heineken Cup exposure this weekend if Leinster forge ahead of Bath at Lansdowne Road.
Joe Schmidt is bringing him along nicely and Madigan looks to be skilled in all areas of attack as well as robust in defence.
There are still areas to work on, such as knowing when to use soft passes rather than always going for the bullet option, but the No 3 out-half slot behind Sexton and O'Gara is available, and Madigan is the form pick.
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