Ireland sweat on O’Driscoll

IRELAND coach Declan Kidney is bracing himself for a possible second major injury blow in as many days with skipper Brian O’Driscoll another injury concern for tomorrow’s Six Nations opener against Italy at Croke Park.

Munster second row Donncha O’Callaghan cried off yesterday with a knee injury, and it has emerged that O’Driscoll is still being closely monitored after sustaining a quad muscle injury in training this week.

With stiffer tests looming for the defending Grand Slam champions – notably a trip to Paris tomorrow week to play France – Ireland’s management team must decide whether to leave O’Driscoll out of the side if he’s not 100% fit for tomorrow’s game against the tournament outsiders.

O’Driscoll sustained the quad muscle injury earlier this week, an area of the leg susceptible to further damage from explosive running. The Irish captain is desperately keen to lead his side out for the opening championship game of 2010, but Kidney and co will not risk their talisman if there is any lingering concern over his thigh.

If he does not start, management will either draft in Paddy Wallace at number 12, with Gordon D’Arcy filling O’Driscoll’s slot, or slot Munster’s Keith Earls straight in at outside centre. If there is a doubt over O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan is likely to be included among the replacements.

The knee injury sustained by O’Callaghan in the closing stages of Munster’s recent Heineken Cup game against Northampton has come back to bite Ireland, with the second row ruled out of tomorrow’s game.

O’Callaghan’s place in the second row goes to Leinster captain Leo Cullen, with Munster’s Donnacha Ryan coming in to the replacement panel and in line to win his first cap in the Six Nations. This means Ireland will be without two key forwards after Stephen Ferris cried off earlier in the week, also because of a knee injury, giving way to new cap Kevin McLaughlin.

O’Callaghan was unable to take a full part in Monday’s squad session but seemed to come through unscathed at the RDS on Tuesday. The left knee was tested again yesterday and afterwards it was decided that he would not be fit for tomorrow’s game. Cullen and Paul O’Connell also formed the Ireland second-row against Fiji in November.

Tomorrow marks the Leinster captain’s first Six Nations game since he started against Wales in March 2003, but Irish manager Paul McNaughton has no fears about the big Newtownmountkennedy man stepping up to the plate on this occasion.

“Leo is an experienced player, a Heineken Cup winner and captain of Leinster,” he pointed out. “He was in the squad in November and he’s a very experienced guy to bring into the team.”

Cullen, 6ft 6 and 17st 6, made his 20th international appearance against Fiji having first played against New Zealand in 2002. He had previously capped a magnificent under age career at Blackrock College and UCD with appearances for Ireland Schools, U19, U21, U25 and A levels.

He transferred from Leinster to Leicester Tigers in 2004 winning several more honours with the Tigers before returning home and leading his native province to Heineken Cup glory with a final victory over his one-time English team-mates last May.

The enforced absence of Ferris, O’Callaghan and Jonny Sexton – plus the possible absence of O’Driscoll – is unlikely to prove too serious where achieving a relatively clear-cut result tomorrow is concerned. But in the context of next week’s crunch clash with France in Paris, it’s a growing concern.

Meanwhile, Italy arrived in Dublin yesterday with coach Nick Mallett sticking with the same side that beat Samoa in November for tomorrow’s Croke Park clash.

Bayonne fly-half Craig Gower has recovered from a knee injury, while Benetton Treviso’s Alessandro Zanni will replace injured captain Sergio Parisse at number eight. Parisse is out for the entire tournament with a knee injury, so Leonardo Ghiraldini will serve as captain. Uncapped Rovigo fly-half Riccardo Bocchino is also included in the squad.

The Italians go into the tournament looking to improve after wooden-spoon performances in 2008 and 2009.They have won just one of their last 10 games in the Six Nations.


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