Whisper it, but all the pieces appear to be falling into place for Paul O’Connell to be named the new Ireland captain later this week with the Munster lock expected to return to full training at Carton House today.
The 34-year-old hasn’t played since Munster’s defeat of Gloucester in the Heineken Cup on October 19 because of a calf injury and Ireland team manager Mick Kearney admitted yesterday he had been a “genuine concern” last week.
However, it now appears that he will be available for selection for this Saturday’s opening Guinness Series fixture, against Samoa, at the Aviva Stadium when he will be expected to make his first appearance in a green jersey in 19 months.
Joe Schmidt made it clear last week that players hoping to make this weekend’s game would need to train fully today, at the latest, and O’Connell is on schedule to do just that, having met all the markers set down by the team’s medical staff.
But now to the provisos.
O’Connell has been dogged by a succession of injuries that have tended to drag on longer than anticipated in recent years and he pulled out of the Ireland squad this time 12 months ago with a back problem when all the indicators were positive.
Add to that the tendency of Schmidt’s Leinster teams not to square with injury updates this last three seasons and it would be unwise to declare O’Connell’s availability and accession to the throne before the crown is placed on his head.
There was, undoubtedly, a more positive air about the camp yesterday compared to this time last week, with Kearney reporting far more good news than bad on an injury front that looked potentially debilitating seven days ago.
Keith Earls is, however, ruled out of the Samoan game due to the patella tendonitis injury which he carried into camp although he has not as of yet been ruled out of the meetings with Australia and New Zealand later this month. Sean O’Brien (ankle) will return to training today, as will Robbie Henshaw (hip felxor), while Cian Healy (knee cartilage) put his boots back on for a full session yesterday afternoon.
Those with minor knocks — Rory Best, Mike Ross and Declan Fitzpatrick — are also on full duties while a tentative question regarding Brian O‘Driscoll confirmed the veteran centre is 100% ready for the Tests.
All of which brings us to Jonathan Sexton. The out-half’s workload in France prompted Schmidt to describe the player as a bit “flat” last week and that was prior to Sexton’s return to France for Racing Metro’s trip to Biarritz at the weekend.
However, Sexton returned to camp on Sunday night after sitting on the bench for his club as un unused replacement and left Schmidt in no doubt but that he was ready, willing and able to clock in three times for Ireland this month.
“Johnny came in last night and Joe asked him how he was,” said Kearney. “Johnny asked Joe what the opposite to ‘flat’ was. He was quite bubbly. He’s certainly under consideration for this week.”
Kearney also sought to tidy up reports emanating from France that Sexton was carrying an injury, explaining that some “tightness” was felt last Wednesday after a two-hour kicking session with Dave Alred.
All in all, it has been far from an ideal build-up for Ireland’s general given the flights to and from Paris, a 1,350km-round trip from the French capital to Biarritz and various reports as to his physical and mental readiness.
It would, of course, have been considerably worse had he been called on at any stage of Racing’s narrow defeat last weekend in what were awful conditions and those who know him best insist he is ready to go.
Among them are Eoin Reddan, Sexton’s co-pilot for the past three seasons at Leinster, a frequent partner on the international scene and a man who is close to the 28-year off the field as well as on. “He is coping with it well,” said Reddan.
“There is different media interest with it than usual in terms of how he is, trying to watch out if he sneezes on the way in to training. In fairness, he is the ultimate pro. He trained well last week and didn’t play at the weekend so he is good.”
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