Leinster could be set for the perfect new year tonic after head coach Joe Schmidt revealed Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald could all return to action on January 4.
The injured Ireland and Lions backs have all been sorely missed from their province’s bid for a third Heineken Cup title in a row this season, which has been hit by back-to-back defeats to ASM Clermont Auvergne in rounds three and four earlier this month.
News of the trio’s imminent comeback from injury, as well as that of Isa Nacewa (arm) and Richardt Strauss (knee) from lesser knocks, against Edinburgh in the RaboDirect Pro12 on January 4 will give new hope to a faltering European qualification campaign from Pool 5, which resumes the following week at home to Scarlets.
The news will also be welcomed by Ireland head coach Declan Kidney, currently preparing for the 2013 RBS 6 Nations championship, which gets under way in Cardiff against Wales on February 2.
“We’d be confident of Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald getting back for Edinburgh,” Schmidt told RTÉ yesterday.
“And there’s a couple of other guys: Richardt Strauss should be back, Isa Nacewa should be back.
“That will hopefully give us a run in to the Scarlets game.”
Leinster need to secure bonus-point victories over Scarlets and then at Exeter Chiefs to have any hope of reaching the European quarter-finals and having an infusion of proven talent for the final two group games would be an undoubted boost for Schmidt.
Fitzgerald has been hampered by a neck injury and has not played since last season’s epic Heineken Cup semi-final win on French soil against Clermont, while a back injury has restricted full-back Kearney to just a 32-minute appearance against Connacht on September 28.
Outside centre O’Driscoll went down with an ankle injury a month later and all three have required surgery to get them back on the field.
Leinster have more immediate issues than Europe as they bid to rebound from a 27-19 RaboDirect Pro12 defeat at Ulster last Friday. The European champions host Connacht at the RDS tomorrow (7.45pm) looking to return to the top four in the table.
The other inter-provincial clash tomorrow will see runaway leaders Ulster travel to Limerick to face third-placed Munster at Thomond Park (5.30pm) with the home side in line to receive an international boost to their selection. Ireland’s Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo could all feature for third-place Munster as Rob Penney’s side bid to score an interprovincial Christmas double following last Saturday’s win at Connacht.
Munster’s international contingent, with the exception of Dave Kilcoyne and Donncha O’Callaghan, were rested for the narrow win at the Sportsground having been stood down under the IRFU’s player welfare programme following the 19-13 Heineken Cup round-five pool defeat to Saracens in Watford on December 16.
Those Test players have this week been involved in a two-day Ireland training camp with Declan Kidney at Carton House, Co Kildare, which concludes today and despite not having trained with their province, Zebo, O’Mahony, Murray, and possibly Donncha O’Callaghan, are set to be included by head coach Rob Penney when he names his matchday squad today.
The Munster head coach should also have Denis Hurley, Sean Dougall and Tommy O’Donnell available for selection once again after they all came through their comeback games from injury successfully in the 16-12 victory in Galway last weekend, although Niall Ronan may have to wait another week before he returns for the first time since suffering a head injury against Scarlets last month.
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