Ireland in fine shape for shot at Six Nations glory
Ulster assistant coach Neil Doak will have been proud of the province's O2 Ireland Wolfhounds representatives in the 14-8 victory over England Saxons at Kingsholm.
Rob Herring, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy started, with Robbie Diack joining in the battle for the final 10 minutes.
It was a strong Ulster contingent and Doak – assistant to Wolfhounds' head coach Anthony Foley – by and large will have been pleased at their contributions. The forwards acquitted themselves admirably.
With the 2014 Six Nations Championship getting under way this weekend and important calls to be made, Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt (right) was there in person to evaluate those vying for the last remaining places in his squad.
The conditions – a strong, bitterly cold end-to-end wind and wet going underfoot – meant it was predestined to be a slog rather than a spectacle. Nevertheless, there was plenty for Schmidt and his lieutenants to ponder.
Going into the weekend, the well-being of out-half Jonny Sexton will have been a major concern for Schmidt.
Saturday evening's news from Paris could not have been better; Sexton starred for Racing Metro in their 25-5 Top 14 win over Toulouse at Stade de France, scoring and converting an early try, Jacques Cronje's charge-down of an attempted clearance kick by Lionel Beauxis, having enabled the former Leinster number 10 to ground the loose ball.
He then burst down the touchline before chipping ahead for the fellow-Lion and half-back partner Mike Phillips to win the race.
A try, a brace of conversions and two penalties in the course of a full-on 74-minute showing will have given Schmidt the reassurance he needed as to Sexton's mental and physical condition, albeit that Ireland's first-choice stand-off was left badly shaken after a very late tackle by Toulouse lock Joe Tekori early in the second half.
In addition to the pleasure Sexton's performance will have given him, Schmidt cannot but have been pleased by the Wolfhounds' admirably disciplined defensive display in Gloucester.
After the full-time whistle, man of the match Isaac Boss, the victors' scrum-half, said the Wolfhounds' pledge had been that they would play for one another in order to challenge, as a team, for places in the Six Nations squad to be unveiled today.
With a large focus on the openings at open-side and on the wing, there was plenty to inform Schmidt's view, while the strength of the work at the breakdown was impressive.
The coach had raised eyebrows by selecting Fergus McFadden for his initial extended 44-man squad – despite having had no game-time – while omitting Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, both of whom had returned from injuries.
McFadden – one of Ireland's best players in November – rose to the encouragement to be taken from the head coach's decision. An ever-present threat to the Saxons in attack, his defence was solid, too. All told, there was enough to suggest that he can come straight into the Six Nations squad – and even the team if required.
Gilroy was less impressive, however. Right now his time out looks to have robbed him of the audacious confidence which is his hallmark when he is at his best.
Zebo looked sharp off the bench and, following his outstanding Munster cameo against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup, would be hard to leave out.
In the back-row, Tommy O'Donnell was another to impress with his tackling and ruck-work, alongside the increasingly impressive Rhys Ruddock and the powerful Robin Copeland.
Whether O'Donnell did enough to displace Chris Henry – truly magnificent for Ulster against Leicester Tigers – from the team to start against Scotland remains to be seen; however, in terms of replacing Sean O'Brien, he is as close as Ireland come to a like-for-like option.
Jordi Murphy made an impact in the last 20 minutes as Ireland held out, while Iain Henderson's brilliant tackle technique and combative display from the second-row should earn him further involvement, especially given his capacity to cover two positions.
Each of the six front-rowers used contributed to a strong forward effort, particularly in the second half, but it was perhaps Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss who shone most brightly on the back of the go-forward ball they received.
The Leinster pair have been out of favour for the big Heineken Cup games in recent weeks, but rather than sulk they led their team forward and each scored a try.
How many of these players will be involved at Lansdowne Road this Sunday remains to be seen, but there was enough to show that Schmidt's long-term plan of building depth in all positions is on schedule.
A very good night's work in Gloucester where quite a few stepped up to the figurative plate.
Schmidt will have been much encouraged and if the quality of Ireland's defence is replicated at senior level, opponents are going to have to work mighty hard to score points.