Sean O’Brien took an encouraging step closer to an Ireland return yesterday as Joe Schmidt’s squad began their final preparations for Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations showdown in France.
Back-row powerhouse O’Brien was withdrawn from firing line for last Sunday’s opener at home to Wales, having developed tightness in a hamstring during the previous week’s training. And despite Tommy O’Donnell’s impressive performance at openside flanker as the Munster man deputised for the Ireland frontliner, O’Brien’s return will be a significant boost ahead of the trip to Paris.
He trained fully yesterday, completing Ireland’s first workout since the 16-16 draw with Wales during a session which saw fellow absentee from last weekend Rob Kearney continue his recovery from a similar strain. Johnny Sexton (shoulder), Andrew Trimble (shoulder) and Simon Zebo (knee) all sat out training as did Keith Earls who is completing his return to play protocols following a concussive impact late on in the drawn game but assistant coach Richie Murphy said none had been ruled out of the race for selection.
Murphy was “pretty confident” fly-half Sexton and outside backs Trimble, Zebo and Kearney will be fit.
“Rob will definitely be fit, Johnny should be fine, he is a bit dinged up but he should be fine. Zeebs… the report is he’s recovering well, he was pretty sore with the knee afterwards but he’s recovered well and should be available to train on Thursday.
“Andrew should be all right. He’s got a shoulder issue that’s been at him on and off so … today’s less than 48 hours after the game so another day should make a big difference to him .”
Head coach Schmidt names his team for Stade de France tomorrow and given the physical toll the Wales opener took on his players, he will wait as long as possible before selecting his matchday squad. And with only a short period between games he will suspend his preference to only pick players who have completed every part of the pre-match preparation during match-week.
“It is a little bit different with a six-day turnaround,” Murphy said yesterday. “It was a pretty physical game at the weekend and another one coming up.
There are a lot of times when players would sit out a Monday if we had played on the Saturday so we are squeezed for time.
No player is going to be ruled out due to that rule this week. We will be picking what we feel is the best team to go to war with France later this week.”
O’Donnell also trained fully yesterday while Fergus McFadden was brought in as wing cover for Earls as he completes his sequence of Head Injury Assessments.
“Keith has gone through HIA1 and has passed that. He is in that process where he is sort of working through those protocols at the moment. He feels pretty good himself. It is a six-day turnaround so we will have to assess that later in the week and see where he is at.”
Sexton, meanwhile had left the field against Wales with five minutes remaining looking in discomfort but Murphy said: “His shoulder area is a little bit stiff and sore but he is very happy obviously because his wife (Laura) had a baby girl yesterday. So he’s in good form, a big smile on his face.”
The likelihood of props Mike Ross and Cian Healy returning to the fold this weekend, though, appears to have receded.
The pair are still training with Leinster and have not been called into the Ireland squad following Ross’s hamstring tear in December and Healy’s knee injury.
They were “progressing well”, Murphy said and both are available for Leinster against Zebre this week with Schmidt appearing to want to keep as settled a team as possible intact from last week’s opener.
“It is trying to get the balance right,” Murphy added. “We made about 170 tackles at the weekend (the official figure was 168, 14 of them missed) so that takes its toll and the six-day turnaround, especially when it is away and you have to travel.
“It is a balance between getting some freshness into the team and guys who are fit and ready to go again. I can’t imagine there will be wholesale changes, maybe a few things to freshen it up a little bit.”
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