Rob Penney will welcome back Donnacha Ryan for Munster’s Musgrave Park clash with Zebre on Saturday with the head coach believing the lock could play his way into Six Nations contention for Ireland’s trip to Twickenham the following week.
The RaboDirect Pro12 leaders have not had the Ireland second row available since mid-December when Ryan made his comeback from a knee injury in the Heineken Cup win at Perpignan only to suffer another setback the following week in training.
With Felix Jones and Tommy O’Donnell released from the Ireland squad in order to get game time ahead of Ireland’s Triple Crown bid against England on February 22, Penney will have another three internationals at his disposal against the Italians and he believes Ryan is primed for promotion to Joe Schmidt’s squad if he comes through the Zebre match successfully.
“He’s in great shape physically and mentally and let’s hope he can get through the Zebre game. There’s every reason to think that he would be high on the watchlist for the boys up there (in the Ireland management).”
With Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer and Simon Zebo all surplus to requirements so far in the Six Nations campaign, Penney was asked if he was surprised to have so many players available.
“No not at all,” he replied. “It’s early days for some. Joe and (assistant coaches John Plumtree) Plums and Les (Kiss) have picked a group that they are having success with and the beauty is that there is another layer of kids down here that are desperately keen to try and force their way in.
“That’s just got to be great for Irish rugby and the next two or three years heading into the World Cup. I just think it’s a great time for anyone to be involved in Irish rugby. I just think there is so much positivity around and it should be trumpeted, embraced and rejoiced, not continually picked holes in. I just think you look from the outside in, which I sort of do, because I’m not Irish, and if I was an Irish rugby supporter I’d be very excited, going forward.”
Less appealing for Penney are his narrowing options at hooker with Mike Sherry a long-term injury casualty, Damien Varley recovering from a delayed concussion and Niall Scannell ruled out for at least eight weeks.
UL Bohemians’ hooker Kevin O’Byrne, 22, has been called into the squad as cover for current first-choice Duncan Casey, with Ger Slattery likely to continue on the bench and Penney did not rule out signing a hooker from the southern hemisphere.
“It is a concern. We’ve brought in another guy out of club land, Kevin O’Byrne, he played for the As last week and he has spent some time in the Connacht environment,” said Penney.
“We’re a little bit thin on the ground there. It could be an option (signing a player), it just depends on how we all feel about the current stocks and how quickly Varls comes back into contention.
“I think there’s some discussions being had about availability and it’s not Andrew Hore,” Penney said, referring to continued speculation surround the veteran All Blacks hooker.
Another name mentioned is New Zealander Quentin MacDonald, who attracted the interest of Leinster and Penney said: “There’s a number of options and he’s possibly one but I don’t want to say that that’s where we’re going because he may not be available and he may not want to come and we may end up being satisfied by what we have.”
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