Ireland and Munster suffered a huge blow yesterday when both captain Paul O’Connell and scrum-half Conor Murray were ruled out of action for between three and six weeks.
Both players suffered knee injuries during the 17-17 draw with France in Paris on Sunday, with Murray stretchered off midway through the second half at Stade de France. O’Connell finished the game but twisted his left knee and a scan yesterday revealed a medial collateral ligament injury that has ruled him out for the rest of the RBS 6 Nations championship, with an expected recovery period of three to six weeks.
Murray is also out for the rest of the Six Nations after he landed awkwardly on his right knee in the 59th minute but, fortunately, suffered no significant ligament damage. A scan did reveal bone bruising in the joint, however, and the IRFU said yesterday that the 22-year-old had an expected three- to four-week recovery period.
While Munster are optimistic that with such a timeframe Murray could be back for their RaboDirect Pro12 clash with inter-provincial rivals Leinster on March 31, O’Connell’s participation in that and the following weekend’s home Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster is more doubtful.
The Ulster game gives him less than five weeks to recover and even if passed fit, O’Connell would be seriously short of game time.
That poses a serious threat to Tony McGahan’s ambitions in his final season as Munster’s director of coaching given O’Connell’s massive influence as captain and his brilliant form following a lengthy absence with a groin problem over the previous two campaigns.
That said, McGahan has strength in depth at lock, with Donncha O’Callaghan having started the majority of the Heineken Cup pool matches on the bench in support of starting second rows O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan, with Mick O’Driscoll and Ian Nagle also in reserve. However, the province will be without Dave Foley following his shoulder dislocation against the Dragons on Saturday.
At scrum-half, Tomás O’Leary, who seems set to join Perpignan next season but has still not formally turned down Munster’s offer of a new contract, will look to make the most of his opportunity in Murray’s absence.
There was an immediate dividend for O’Leary last night as he was called into the Ireland squad, along with Connacht forward Mike McCarthy, for Saturday’s Aviva Stadium clash with Scotland.
That, too, will leave Munster short of options at number nine for this weekend’s rearranged RaboDirect Pro12 clash in Italy against Aironi. With Murray injured, O’Leary with Ireland and Peter Stringer starting a loan spell at Newcastle, having been cup-tied in Europe after appearing in the pool games for Saracens, league regular Duncan Williams is the very probable starter, with second-year Academy scrum-half Cathal Sheridan set for a possible debut off the bench.
Sheridan, 23, has travelled with the squad this season but has not appeared in a match day squad since being an unused sub against Treviso in February last year.
Murray’s place in the Ireland team to be named by Kidney tomorrow will more than likely be taken by Leinster’s Eoin Reddan, who has made lively contributions off the bench in the opening three games of the championship, while O’Leary will likely hold off Isaac Boss, Ireland’s third-choice scrum-half at the World Cup, to get the nod as the likely bench cover.
In the second row, having seen O’Callaghan reverse the provincial pecking order in the Six Nations to date, Ryan’s promotion to a starting lock this weekend now seems a formality, while Peter O’Mahony could be in line for a first international start in the back row as Kidney considers some squad rotation for the third Test in a four-week, four-game run.
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