'Did Joe have a little word with Leo Cullen?' pondered Brian O'Driscoll when Leinster announced their team to face Montpellier today. It was an interesting point, Jordan Larmour moved to the wing, Dan Leavy and James Ryan came into the pack. This was a game for Six Nations hopefuls to make a claim for a starting shirt.
Leinster had already qualified for the knockout round and thus made several changes to their side. After a shaky start they saw off Montpellier 23-14. Several Irish players will return from France happy in the knowledge they improved their Six Nations chances.
Rob Kearney - 7/10
Early in the first half, Kearney leaped to receive a kick-chase and unusually, lost the aerial battle. He instantly recovered to make a huge tackle and force a turnover. Kearney is still very much the starting full-back and with the creative options available on either wing thanks to the form of Earls, Larmour and Stockdale it should pay to have such an experienced operator in that back three.
Jordan Larmour - 6/10
Girvan Dempsey is Larmour's backs coach at Leinster and was unequivocal when asked where Larmour's best position is; full-back. Didn't have as big an impact he would have liked today. However, his recent cameos on the wing suggest this is the most likely position that he will feature at come the Six Nations. The Leinster man was awarded player of the month for December and has continued that form into the new year. Has proved himself already with ball in hand and Larmour has answered every question asked of him defensively so far.
Sean Cronin - 9/10
Got a great revenge try in the second-half, in a carbon copy of Montpellier's first-half effort which saw them bully the Leinster scrum back over their own try line. A regular criticism of Cronin is his wayward throwing but yet again he finished today with a 100% accuracy. He was awarded man of the match for his efforts. You still get the impression he will be the ultimate impact sub come February.
James Ryan - 8/10
Montpellier's half-time lead was entirely down to the battle between each pack. The French outfit are an extremely strong outfit at home and had the considerable bulk of Mikheil Nariashvili and Nicholaas Van Rensburg in their tight five. Ryan has an exceptional skill set not only in the basic lock play. He off-loaded twice, carried well and has terrific reach in his line-out jump. His main competition for a starting role was his partner today, Devin Toner, but the impact substitution spot looks well within his grasp now.
Dan Leavy - 7/10
Leinster's starting back three today will all scrap it out to join CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony in the Irish back row for that opening game against France. Leavy is a complete athlete. His efforts at the breakdown forced Montpellier to ensure they committed enough men to every ruck and that their clear-out was quick. Although, he may fall victim to the stiff competition he faces for some Six Nation game time.
Josh Van Der Flier - 7/10
Sean O'Brien's loss should prove to be Van Der Flier's gain. He is an expert on the aspects of the game that Schmidt values most, work-rate, tackling and the jackal. The most traditional 'open-side' in Irish rugby right now.
Jack Conan - 8/10
Conan's form has been such that there has barely been a whimper at the prolonged absence of Jamie Heaslip. Once again Conan was magnificent today against a stacked French back row that included Picamoles and Camara. The second-most tackles of any Leinster play with 13, and none missed. Also led the carry-count with 12 for 16 metres, the most of any Leinster forward bar Cronin. Schmidt will have the luxury of multiple back rows who can fit in seamlessly at any stage during the tournament.
Irish rugby is in a good place right now, nowhere is it more evident than the Leinster juggernaut fueled by a new burst of Irish talent. Their emergence comes at a great moment, with a Six Nations rearing into sight and a World Cup on the horizion.
SEE ALSO: Watch: Christian Lealiifano Opens Up On Emigration, Leukaemia And Loss Of His Father