Euro clashes great chance for players to make Six Nations bid
With it being Heineken Cup time once more, each of the next two weekends will be given over to trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Saturday night will see Ulster and Leinster in action simultaneously – at home to Benetton Treviso and away to Northampton Saints respectively, with both matches kicking off at 6pm.
On Sunday afternoon, Munster and Connacht get their turn – the former at home to Perpignan (12.45pm), the latter away to Toulouse (3pm).
Those who must travel this time will be at home the following weekend.
The last two rounds of group-stage matches will be staged in January, with the six pool winners joined by the best two runners-up in the quarter-finals.
But quite apart from what is at stake for the 24 participating teams, the Heineken Cup provides the perfect platform at just the right moment for those hoping or needing to make a case for themselves regarding inclusion in the 2014 Six Nations Championship.
With that fast-approaching tournament in mind, Ireland's still-new head coach Joe Schmidt will be a particularly interested spectator between now and the end of the pool matches on January 19.
Already aware of his certainties and probables, what he will want to see is how those in the 'possible' and 'just maybe' brackets fare on the European stage and in direct opposition to one another when the provinces go head-to-head in Yuletide-New Year PRO12 derbies.
Leinster v Ulster, Munster v Connacht, Ulster v Munster and Connacht v Leinster is the line-up over the festive period and players with points to prove will welcome the fact that those all-important fixtures are wedged between two segments of Heineken Cup action.
Good time to shine? You'd better believe it.
While Ulster have representation in each of those four bands, it is the players in the 'possible' and 'just maybe' categories who most need to impress.
Currently Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall (pictured), Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry are the province's leading lights on the international stage and they will be joined by Craig Gilroy who is fit again after missing out on Ireland's summer tour and autumn series.
Dan Tuohy is thereabouts, too, and Robbie Diack's star could rise in the next few weeks. Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Tom Court and Roger Wilson are on the fringe, accustomed to being drafted in but then omitted come the cull.
Paul Marshall does not appear to figure in Schmidt's plans at this stage, with Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss ahead of him in the queue.
With Ruan Pienaar – assuming he continues to avoid injury – wearing nine in Ulster's big games, one suspects Marshall will have little opportunity to show his stuff between now and Ireland's players going into camp after the final round of Heineken Cup games ahead of their opener against Scotland in Dublin on February 2.