Here's a province-by-province breakdown of the players most likely to break out as Ireland internationals enjoy a Six Nations break.
The Six Nations period has been good to Munster over the past few seasons. With internationals away fringe players can get a run in the team and get a shot at establishing themselves for the season run in. Two years ago Connor Murray got an extended run in the team and Felix Jones returned from injury. Both kept their places for the thrilling Amlin Cup quarter final in Brive and both went on to earn their first Ireland caps that Summer in the RWC warm-up games. This time last year flankers Dave O'Callaghan and Tommy O'Donnell got consistent game time. O'Donnell went on to start the Heineken Cup quarter final against Ulster and has been one of Munster form players this seasons while O'Callaghan made a big impression in Munster's back-to-back games against Saracens in December. Here are three who will look to make the breakthrough before the Heineken Cup quarter final:
CJ Stander: The South African has been with Munster since November but has only gotten two starts and two sub appearances so far due to injury and not being HCup registered. He has already scored three tries in his two starts (including his 80m effort in December
JJ Hanrahan: The young Kerryman burst into most peoples consciousness last June during the Junior World Cup in South Africa. Having played centre in the U20 Six Nations in 2012, the withdrawal of Paddy Jackson saw Hanrahan move into 10 in South Africa. His control and maturity shone in wins over South Africa, England and France and he ended up on the 3 man shortlist for World Junior Player of the Year. His games for Munster since making his debut in September have seen him deployed at 12 mostly with some time at 10. Strong with quick feet and a sharp pass he can beat defenders in a busy midfield he adds a playmaking ability to the 12 channel, a position where Munster have struggled traditionally. He has played predominantly at 10 for the Munster A side in the British & Irish Cup so his long term position has yet to be decided. With James Downey injured and one (or two?) Munster outhalves with the Ireland squad he's assured of plenty of exposure over the next few weeks.
Luke O'Dea: The winger has impressed when playing in the absence of more senior players over the last 18months. With Doug Howlett recuperating from knee surgery and Simon Zebo's broken foot, places in the back 3 are up for grabs in the near and medium term. Very quick and with a nose for the tryline, O'Dea's scoring record has been good in hist short career with 6 tries in only 17 Munster appearances. He made his HCup debut replacing Felix Jones at Vicarage Road in December and he'll be looking to play his way into contention for another HCup appearance in London in April.
Appearances for Leinster: 50
O'Malley, out since May 2012 with a cruciate knee injury, returned for Leinster to get 21 minutes from the substitutes' bench in Cardiff last week. Still only 24 years old, in the big picture it's not that long since he was chosen to replace Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre to face the giants of Clermont on their own ground in 2010. Possibly the most inherently creative centre Ireland has produced since O'Driscoll, with a nod to the unfortunate Barry Murphy, if O'Malley can keep himself injury-free and get enough game time to play himself into form both Leinster and Ireland will have a genuine competitor for the sacred 13 jersey.
The Hitman: Dominic Ryan
Appearances for Leinster: 41
While coming up through the ranks Ryan was earmarked early as a naturally destructive force, throwing himself into tackles with reckless abandon and causing general chaos and mayhem wherever he roamed. As he's gained experience in both the six and seven shirts for Leinster he's shown encouraging signs of turning into a much more complete flanker capable of linking play. Having made his Leinster debut all the way back in 2009 at just 19 Ryan, like O'Malley, has already seen his share of big match days for Leinster in previous seasons but with Shane Jennings, Sean O'Brien, Kevin McLoughlin and Rhys Ruddock ahead in the queue it's been a tough battle. On thebenefits side of that equation, he's learning from some of the very best in the game. With Chris Henry already 28 years old, the 22 year old Ryan has the time and talent to become the number one "natural" open side on the island.
The Coming Man: Jordi Murphy
Appearances for Leinster: 18
At 6'2" and 16st 9lb Jordi Murphy is a solidly built human; the same weight as Dominic Ryan but packed into a shorter frame. And he's still
only 21. While Eoin O'Malley has played just 21 minutes of the 2012/13 league season and Ryan 150 minutes, Murphy has made three league
starts and seven appearances off the bench. To top that off, he played the final 13 minutes of Leinster's crunch tie against Clermont at
Lansdowne Road and got 23 minutes to wreak havoc against the Scarlets at the RDS. Murphy is a destructive ball-carrier from number eight or
the flank; this was probably best seen this year in Leinster's demolition of Cardiff where the young man was a constant threat
whenever he got the ball. If rumours of a possible switch to Connacht prove well-founded, the Westerners will have themselves a good 'un.
Connacht go into this closing part of the Rabo with plenty to prove. A new coach is on the way, so everyone's likely on edge, and a legendary one is leaving and no one wants to see the Elwood era die out with a whimper. A few wins could see us finish as high as 7th in the league, and hopefully the following players will be among those who can shine bright enough to end up on the fringes of the national team radar.
Robbie Henshaw: The best, and most obvious choice. The man who has gone from schools rugby to the Ireland Wolfhounds in eight months. The man who's jumped ahead of the club captain while still in his teens. Henshaw is already on Declan Kidney's radar, though he admittedly remains a long time behind Rob Kearney in the pecking order. He's already a star though, and one who may eventually move to take the number 13 shirt in time.
Nathan White/Ronan Loughney: The number 3 shirt is probably Ireland's biggest worry, and the prevalence of imported tightheads here is a common complaint. Here, though, are two players who could help breach a gap. Loughney is probably a stretch, but he's a player I'm a big fan of. After beginning last season as a loosehead, he switched to the other side of the back to help the team through a bind and impressed enough to travel to New Zealand last summer. The lack of a call-up since then suggests Kidney has written him off, and he's also fallen behind White for the province. The Leinster import is on track for the Irish squad however. The New Zealander qualifies to play for Ireland from 2014 and has two full seasons left on his Connacht deal. Already 31, his long-term viability is questionable, but he'd certainly be ahead of Michael Bent in the pecking order if already eligible.
Danie Poolman: Munster fans may tell you that CJ Stander is the next South African in the frame to join Richardt Strauss in the Ireland squad, but there's another man in the West who's hoping to take a spot in the Ireland midfield from 2015. Danie Poolman is 23 years old, and has scored four tries in eight Rabo apprearances. Strongest in the centre, he can also play on the wing, and to have forced his way into the reckoning in a midfield which already includes Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin is impressive. McSharry has already been in the Ireland squad in recent weeks, and has hopefully been learning from the likes of D'Arcy and O'Driscoll, and along the South African both have great potential in the years ahead.
Niall Annett: The 21 year-old hooker has real potential as a player and a leader. He has captained at various representative levels including the Ireland U20s at the 2011 Junior World Cup. Very lively around the park and a real dead-eye dick at the linout. Only played 67 mins for Ulster this season but I reckon he will go all the way. Rory Best’s boots will be very difficult to fill but in Annett, I reckon Ulster and Ireland could have a worthy successor.
Mike Allen: Another exciting three-quarter from the same alma mater as twinkle toes Gilroy. Allen started the first four games of Ulster’s campaign, the first 3 on the wing and then at the more familiar outside centre against Cardiff. Unfortunately he twisted his knee in the act of scoring which kept him out for a few weeks. However, in what is very much his breakthrough season, he has made 9 starts, including the Heineken Cup match against `Castres, and one appearance off the bench. Excellent cover for Darren Cave and our 3 international wingers.
Stuart Olding: The young out-half made his first Ulster start against the Ospreys on what was a very disappointing night for Ulster last Friday. In his second season with the Ireland U20s, he played full-back against Wales but was released for the Ospreys game to be replaced by Connacht’s prodigious Robbie Henshaw. Had a hugely impressive cameo in the third quarter of Ulster’s defeat to Munster at Thomond where he looked very silky indeed.
Michael Heaney: Same school, same build and virtually the same game as Paul Marshall, but 5 years younger. Ulster signed him on a short-term contract after the 22 year-old Belfast Harlequins scrum-half had spent 6 months with Doncaster in the 2nd tier of English rugby. Given the presence of Ruan and Wee Paul, he has only made 3 starts and 4 appearances off the bench. Despite that, he has done enough to convince Ulster to extend his contract to the end of the season and I would be delighted to see the young man given a full contract for next season – he is really good to watch.