Time running out for Keith Earls as battle with France nears

Keith Earls will undergo the latest stage of his return to play protocols today but Ireland’s tight RBS 6 Nations schedule could mean him missing out on a seventh consecutive start for Joe Schmidt this weekend.

The versatile back suffered a concussion late in Sunday’s championship-opening 16-16 draw with Wales.

Although he passed his initial Head Injury Assessment (HIA), he later showed symptoms which required him to progress through the return to play protocols this week and the Ireland wing will undergo HIA 3 this afternoon, 48 hours after the end of Sunday’s match.

That will mean missing today’s full training session and with Ireland back in action against France in Paris on Saturday afternoon, that means time could well be against Earls getting the chance to prove his on-field readiness even if he passes medically fit.

Earls’s Munster team-mate Tommy O’Donnell has no race against the clock, having successfully passed his initial HIA having left the field earlier in the second half against Wales.

Openside flanker O’Donnell along with his 49th minute replacement Rhys Ruddock and fellow starters CJ Stander and No.8 Jamie Heaslip faced down an experienced Welsh back-row trio at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday and earned the praise of Schmidt. 

The Tipperary man may have to make way for first-choice openside Sean O’Brien, though, should the British & Irish Lion back row prove his coach’s confidence correct and continue his comeback from the hamstring tightness that prevented him from facing Wales.

As well as O’Donnell played, having the experienced O’Brien back in the fold to face another big and athletic French pack will be a significant boost to Schmidt, who welcomed his players back into camp at Carton House yesterday evening.

Scrum-half Conor Murray certainly believes there is more to come from Ireland as this championship progresses and improvements to be made after a performance that began brightly when he scored his side’s only try, before the men in green allowed a Welsh rally just before half-time.

“Overall positive,” was Murray’s verdict on the Irish performance. “We have to be for our first game. We were in camp for two weeks and to get a performance like that was really pleasing even though the draw was disappointing. I thought we started really well.

“The first 30 minutes was going really well and then we just let them back into the game that last 10 minutes and onto the scoreboard. That gave them an in back into the game. Second-half then was a bit more evenly contested and it ebbed and flowed while being really physical.

“I thought our breakdown was really good, which is something you always look at. The likes of Warburton and Tipuric, I don’t think they got much reward. I don’t think they stole many balls off us which was one of their main strengths. We counter-attacked well.

“There were a lot of positive aspects to our game and we are still in the hunt. We have a six-day turnaround to Paris now so we have to get our bodies right and recover and then get focused for a big game. We have a week off after that so we can recover better then.”

Murray, who put in an impressive shift alongside fly-half Johnny Sexton, felt his side’s composure in rebounding from Rhys Priestland’s 72nd-minute penalty to claim a deserved draw through his half-back partner’s 74th-minute reply from the tee showed that pre-match pessimism in may quarters about injury-hit Ireland’s chances in their opening game was misplaced.

“Whatever the perception of the camp is, we are quite a confident bunch. We have to be. Over the last two years we have done quite well. I know there has been changes to the team but there are people filling in there and doing good jobs.

“We just stuck to our game plan so we knew we could get into a position to level it. That’s the way we think and the way we have to be and Johnny nailed a pressure kick, and fair play to him.”

Murray also praised his provincial team-mate Stander, whose man-of-the-match performance marked a wonderful Test debut having qualified on residency last November, three years after his move to Munster from South Africa.

“No surprise to me or to any of the other Munster lads who know him well,” the scrum-half said. “He has been himself since he came into camp. He hasn’t been overawed by any of it. He just gone on with his work, did his homework and ripped into it. It’s great for him and his family.”


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