Lions trio set to fill Ireland's back row as injuries mount

Ireland’s back row for Saturday’s Guinness Series opener against South Africa appears to be cut and dried after forwards coach Simon Easterby revealed Tommy O’Donnell, Dan Leavy, and Jack Conan had all missed some training this week.

Munster flanker O’Donnell appears the most serious concern after sustaining a shoulder “bump” in training on Monday, with Easterby saying yesterday that the openside was due to have a scan. Conan, one of two back rowers along with CJ Stander running at No.8 in training under head coach Joe Schmidt, was rested yesterday due to a heavy workload, while Dan Leavy has experienced tightness in his hamstring after playing for Leinster last weekend.

Easterby said none of the injury issues were serious but, with Jamie Heaslip absent with a long-term back injury, it looks likely Schmidt will go with an all-British & Irish Lions trio of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, and Stander, with Rhys Ruddock providing bench cover when the Springboks visit the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Selection in midfield is less clearcut, with another Lion, Robbie Henshaw being considered at either 12 or 13 in the absence through injury of both Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose. Stuart McCloskey is a potential foil at inside-centre, while former Connacht team-mate Bundee Aki could make his Test debut at outside centre on Henshaw’s shoulder.

“It’s a chance to see some combinations,” said Easterby of this month’s Tests against the Boks, Fiji, and Argentina before asserting that Aki, recently qualified under residency rules after three years in Galway, was ready for the step up to Test rugby.

“He’s abrasive. He’s physical. You have to be those couple of things in Test-match rugby these days. He has a really good rugby intelligence as well. That’s really important at this level and, to get on well in this team, you have to be more than just a good rugby player, but also know where you need to be and how things work. It’s a combination of things.”

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