Ireland outhalf  Jonathan Sexton celebrates kicking a drop goal with  Rob Kearney during the Six Nations match against France at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton help Joe Schmidt’s side control full-on encounter

Keith Earls: “The goal would be, by the time I’m finished, to hopefully have a Six Nations [medal] and down in Munster have a European Cup medal.” Photograph: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

‘If I never scored another try and we won every game I played in, I’d still be happy’

Jonathan Sexton warms up at the Captain’s Run yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Six Nations Preview: With Sexton returning, Ireland’s extra savvy should be enough

Rory Best returns to captain Ireland after being sidelined against Italy through illness. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Ireland coach insists weather conditions will have to be adapted to with so much at stake

Jonathan Sexton during an Ireland training session at Carton House, Co Kildare, this week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/Inpho.

Joe Schmidt has best injury profile for some time ahead of confrontation with France

Johnny Sexton: has started only two games for Ireland and seven  for Leinster this season. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland will have Kearney, Best, O’Mahony, Murray and Trimble available for selection

Climbing higher: Devin Toner and Kieran Marmion during training at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Connacht scrumhalf knows Conor Murray’s place will be hard to take in current form

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Robbie Henshaw will hope to make inroads in the France defence this weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Tournament about to open up as weather improves and teams chase bonus points

Jamie Heaslip in action against Italy in Rome. “There is one thing I haven’t won that I would like to win.”  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Prospect of another World Cup continues to inspire long-serving Ireland and Leinster No 8

Jamie Heaslip at a press conference in Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Both players will return to full training on Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s game in Dublin

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose makes a break against Italy in Rome. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland centre believes gradual introduction to team has benefited his development

 Josh van der Flier leaves the field  during Leinster’s game with Edinburgh on Friday. His shoulder injury is expected to keep him out of the rest of the Six Nations. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Sexton and Kearney battling for fitness but van der Flier’s Six Nations looks to be over

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt: “We’ve got a few selection headaches and that’s exactly what you need.” Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Sexton, Kearney and Murray sit out session but target return to full training on Tuesday

Camille Lopez celebrates  France’s win against Scotland. Photograph:Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Les Bleus will arrive in Dublin with most settled team and squad since Laporte days

Johnny Sexton signs autographs for fans at Friday’s open training session at Monaghan RFC. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble, all take a full part

 Kieran Keane: was  head coach of the New Zealand province Tasman Makos from 2009. “The game has changed, the players have changed and I had to change.” Photograph: Simon Watts/Getty Images

Waikato Chiefs backs coach has formidable credentials to succeed Pat Lam

Italian players react after Ireland’s Craig Gilroy scored a try during the team’s Six Nations rugby  match  in Rome  at  weekend. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

This year’s series is going to be more brutally physical and exacting than its predecessors

Out of reach: Ireland ran  in nine tries against Italy in their RBS Six Nations game in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Photograph: Giuseppe Fama/Inpho

Joe Schmidt’s men put Murrayfield behind them with nine-try, record-winning margin

Ireland’s Rob Kearney with Edoardo Padovani of Italy at the RBS 6 Nations Championship Round 2 in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Schmidt: ‘Hopefully, after today, they’ll appreciate they can live up to these big matches’

Craig Gilroy avoids the tackle of Giovanbattista Venditti  on his way to scoring his third and Ireland’s ninth try during the Six Nations game against Italy at Stadio Olimpico, in Rome. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt’s side ran over nine tries in Rome to pick up a much-needed victory

Guess who? Yes, it’s Ireland fullback Rob Kearney during the captain’s run in the Stadio Olimpico. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Schmidt’s side cannot afford to slip up against tournament underdogs in Rome

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea: “There are some players with huge potential there and we just have to make sure that we have that pathway.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Irishman wants his side to arrive at the next World Cup like Argentina did in 1999

Cian Healy: replaces    Jack McGrath  in the Ireland front row for the visit to Italy. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Joe Schmidt calls up Donnacha Ryan and Cian Healy to starting XV for Italy test

Donnacha Ryan is expected to resume his partnership with Devin Toner against Italy. Photograph: Inpho

Ryan to come in to Ireland secondrow while Peter O’Mahony will not be risked

John Ryan (left) packs down against Jack McGrath during Ireland training at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster player relishes first outings in Test rugby but knows he has to fight for a place

Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell: “International football is understanding what ruthlessness looks like.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Schmidt’s assistant argues poor defence was less a technical issue than one of appetite

Ireland player Jamie Heaslip shows his frustration after Saturday’s loss to  Scotland. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The glow from the historic treble over the southern hemisphere giants has not lasted

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw: “For us, on the weekend, our communication could have been better.” Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Doubts remain over Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton as Ian Keatley stays in camp

Scotland’s scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw celebrates after successfully kicking his final penalty on 80 minutes at Murrayfield on Saturday. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt’s team will need four wins, and possibly bonus points, to contend for title

Ireland’s full-back Rob Kearney  is tackled during Saturday’s Six Nations international rugby union match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Blame their tardy arrival at, but Ireland never found that extra gear to beat Scotland

Coaches Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt share a moment before the Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

‘It certainly changes the dynamic, to start the Six Nations with a win’

Scotland fullback  Stuart Hogg celebrates scoring his second  second try during the Six Nations game against Ireland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

Second-half fightback falls short as Ireland left with just a losing bonus point

Ireland hooker Rory Best during the captain’s run at Murrayfield on Friday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland captain insists his men can’t let an emotional Scotland spring from the traps

Jack McGrath celebrates Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand at Solider Field, Chicago last November. “It was incredible and it’s not something I’ll ever forget.” Photograph: Inpho

Ireland prop forward believes Six Nations opener against Scotland will be a huge task

Somewhere under the rainbow, Ireland trained in showers and sunshine at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt’s side has array of dynamic runners with more ballast to come from bench

British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland and Temple Street hospital ambassador Brian O’Driscoll with 13-year-old  Corey Mulpeter from Offaly on a visit to the hospital. Photograph: Inpho

Former captain acknowledges luck will play a part in Six Nations campaign

Seán O’Brien could return to the Ireland backrow for the Six Nations opener against Scotland at Murrayfield. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Niall Scannell in line to make his debut off the bench at Murrayfield

Tadhg Furlong in action against Australia last November. “Test matches  take so much out of you physically, mentally, emotionally.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland prop has come a long way since making his full Test debut in South Africa

Simon Easterby has defended the decision to overlook Ian Madigan with Johnny Sexton out injured. Photograph: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

Paddy Jackson has huge responsibility on his shoulders with Johnny Sexton out injured

Ian Madigan: his move to  Bordeaux-Begles has effectively removed him fromthe Ireland  frame. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Irish management will only turn to overseas-based players in rare circumstances

In 2009, Ireland achieved their first Grand Slam in 61 years thanks to the lowest injury profile imaginable. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Recent history shows the more settled an Irish side, the more likely they will be contenders

Rob Kearney was Ireland leading ball carrier against New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago, last November. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Ireland fullback wary of threat posed by on-form Scotland side at Murrayfield

Vern Cotter: “Will having them in the first game at BT Murrayfield give us a lift going into the game? Yes, I think it will.” Photograph:  Jane Barlow/PA

Coach confident his improving team have the resources this time to test Ireland’s mettle

Ireland captain Rory Best and England captain Dylan Hartley next to the Six Nations trophy during the tournament launch at The Hurlingham Club in London. Photograph:  Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Schmidt’s side face a much-improved Scottish team in the opening game of tournament

Simon Zebo scores a try against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. The Munster winger has been in outstanding form this season for Munster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Result in opener at Murrayfield will go long way to determining Ireland’s campaign

Italy coach Conor O’Shea with his captain Sergio Parisse pose with the Six Nations trophy at the tournament  launch at The Hurlingham Club  in London. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Former Ireland fullback is prioritising performances over results in Six Nations

 Captains Sergio Parisse of Italy, Guilhem Guirado of France, Rory Best of Ireland, Niamh Briggs of Ireland, Gaelle Mignot of France and Sara Barrattin of Italy at the launch of the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland head coach expecting hugely competitive and compelling tournament

Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt and Captain Rory Best pose with the RBS Six Nations Trophy during the Six Nations Media Launch in London. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has said the outhalf will return to the full training next week

Jack Carty has yet to score a drop-goal for Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

Irish sides did better than expected in Champions Cup pool stage with Munster the happiest

 Johnny Sexton in action against Castres  in the European  Champions Cup. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Squad of 40 selected for next month’s opening two games in Scotland and Italy

Connacht’s Quinn Roux and John Muldoon leave the field after defeat to Toulouse in the Champions Cup on Sunday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

Playing Munster at Thomond Park in a Champions Cup quarter-final would have been a dream

 A dejected Tiernan O’Halloran  after the game in Toulouse. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Connacht full-back reflects on the one that got away as Toulouse deprive them of a European Champions Cup quarter-final place

Robbie Henshaw scores his second try for Leinster in Friday’s European Champions Cup match at the Stade Pierre Antoine despite the efforts of Steve Mafi of Castres. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

After draw with Castres, Henshaw is ready for home quarter-final with his new team

Connacht’s James Cannon and Tiernan O’Halloran leave the field after the Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse at Stade Ernest-Wallon. Photograph:  James Crombie

Champions Cup quarter-final and semi-final permutations for Leinster and Munster

Connacht’s James Cannon shows his dejection after the defeat to Toulouse at  the Stade Ernest-Wallon. Photograph:  Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Connacht coach frustrated after side fail to make European quarter-finals

Toulouse players celebrate as referee Wayne Barnes blows the full-time whistle in the Champions Cup game against Connacht at Stade Ernest-Wallon. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Lam’s brave side miss out on quarter-final slot by smallest of margins

Pat Lam: Connacht’s head coach is aiming to lead his team to a first Champions Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Withstanding European aristocrats Toulouse on their own patch a tall order for Lam’s side

Jack Carty celebrates scoring a conversion for Connacht that won the game against Wasps in the Champions Cup at the Sportsground last month. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho.

After recovering from horrific injury the outhalf is excited about future with province and Ireland

Jamie Heaslip speaks to the Leinster team after the game.  He  implored his players to “f***ing learn from this”. Ohotograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Leinster coach says his young side will learn a lesson from hard-earned draw in Castres

Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw scores the first of his two tries  despite the tackle of Julien Dumora of Castres during the Champions Cup game at Stade Pierre Antoine. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leo Cullen’s side guaranteed home tie unless Connacht secure huge win in Toulouse

Castres’ Antoine Dupont is tackled by Jamie Heaslip of Leinster during the game at the RDS. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Victory against Castres will secure a lucrative home quarter-final for Leo Cullen’s side

Leinster’s victory over Montpellier means a win in Castres would ensure them a home quarter-final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Munster and Leinster have home ties within reach while Connacht have work to do

Munster’s Conor Murray is tackled by Josh Strauss of Glasgow Warriors during the sides clash at Scotstoun on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Provinces’ weekend achievements clouded by events that led to Conor Murray’s HIA

Munster’s CJ Stander: ‘We’re all competing in the backrow, but we’re all good mates and we want to see each other perform.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Munster number eight says moment with O’Mahony typifies squad’s togetherness

Munster’s Francis Saili scores the winning try  at Scotstoun Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Glasgow Warriors lead four times but couldn't prevent classic late smash-and-grab

Munster’s Francis Saili celebrates his crucial try with teammates in Saturday’s European  Champions Cup clash with Glasgow Warriors. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Rassie Erasmus hails Munster’s gritty performance, but concedes it was far from perfect

 Conor Murray is assessed for a possible head injury against Glasgow Warriors. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Connacht aim to join Rassie Erasmus’s team and Leinster in European quarter-finals

Jaco Taute of Munster is congratulated by supporters in the main stand at the final whistle after beating Warriors 14-12. Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

‘I think it would be stupid too put targets out there,’ the Munster director of rugby said

Glasgow Warriors’ Josh Strauss is tackled by Peter O’Mahony of Munster during their Champions Cup clash at Scotstoun. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

A late Francis Saili try gave Rassie Erasmus’ the chance to book a home quarter-final

Head coach  Rassie Erasmus: “I would like players to have the feeling that we are committed because we don’t want to disappoint one another.”  Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

South African has brought emotional intelligence as well as a razor-sharp rugby brain

Keith Earls: recalled to the wing by Munster coach Rassie Erasmus. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Victory in group shoot-out would go a long way to securing a home quarter-final

Leinster backrow Jack Conan stretches out to score his third try in the Champions Cup game against Montpellier at the RDS. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Frans Steyn sent off for French side in first half after high tackle on Johnny Sexton

Jamie Heaslip finds the going tough when  Leinster were defeated by Montpellier during the Champions Cup game at Altrad Stadium last October. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

Irish province need to stick to their own game against multinational opposition

Munster’s Simon Zebo with Peter Murchie of Glasgow Warriors:  sides meet in  crunch  match  in Scotstoun on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Irish quartet all in reckoning, with Munster and Leinster each in control of own destinies

Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong leads the charge against  Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland prop has no interest in looking back as European quarter-final place beckons

Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty: Montpellier  “is a huge, huge game”. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Discipline and smart kicking key against physicality of ‘langueboks’

Scarlets’ Aled Davies is tackled by Ulster’s Sean Reidy  before Scarlets are awarded a penalty try and a yellow card is given to Reidy. Photograph: Ben Evans/Presseye/Inpho

World Rugby must be more proactive if it doesn’t want edict cursed with inconsistency

Robbie Henshaw is focused ahead of Leinster’s visit to Northampton this weekend, with victory ensuring a  first European Cup quarter-final of his career. Photograph:  Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Leinster and Ireland centre admits he will have to adjust his tackling technique

Andrew Conway scores Munster’s third try against Racing 92 during the European Champions Cup game at Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Paris on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

Abysmal Racing 92 no match for clinical Irish province

Racing 92’s coach Ronan O’Gara wearing an Anthony Foley t-shirt during the warm up prior to the game at State Yves-du-Manoir. Photogra: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Province’s former outhalf agrees Racing were outplayed in every department

Racing 92’s Anthony Tuitavake and CJ Stander of Munster during the European Rugby Champions Cup Round 1 match at Stade Yves-du-Manoir in Paris on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Munster play exactly as Anthony Foley would have wanted to secure win against Racing

Munster captain Peter O’Mahony leads his team off the pitch at the end of their Champions Cup win over Racing 92. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

‘It was a big week for the club for many reasons,’ the Munster captain said

Man of the match CJ Stander scored Munster’s second try as they trounced Racing 92 in Paris, a victory which sends them to the top of Champions Cup Pool One. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie

Rassie Erasmus’s side claim bonus point with performance of ruthless efficiency in Paris

A tribute to Anthony Foley outside the Stade Yves Du Manoir last October. Foley’s untimely death led to the cancellation of Munster’s match against Racing Metro. Photograph:    James Crombie/Inpho

Racing 92 have impressive home form even if their focus is now on domestic league

Ronan O’Gara: “I think that’s what separates Munster from anywhere else in the world; the bond between the supporters and the team.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Racing coach prepares to renew old acquaintances with Munster in Champions Cup

Simon Zebo has a remarkably consistent strike rate for Munster. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Province’s all-time leading try scorer is one touchdown short of reaching half century

James Cannon: the ex-Northampton and Wasps lock follows a tradition of English locks pitching up at Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht’s lock admits team must begin to win away from home, starting with Ospreys

Dan Carter will miss Racing 92’s re-arranged Champions Cup clash with Munster this Saturday. Photo: Getty Images

However those expected to come in will be straining at the leash to impress

Irish fans celebrate  Ireland’s 35-25 Six Nations win over Scotland in Dublin last March. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

From the Six Nations to the choice of 2023 World Cup hosts, prospects are promising

Rory Best congratulated by team-mates on his 100th cap after Ireland beat Australia at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Season turned on Connacht’s daring and unlikely success and will go down in history

Simon Zebo acrobatically touches down for a try against Leinster at Thomond Park. Photograph: Inpho

Munster open up five point gap at top of the table after comfortable Thomond Park win

Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s  fifth try against New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago on November 5th. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Sports review of 2016: Triumph put into perspective by Axel passing

Prop John Ryan, in action against Leicester at Welford Road, won his first cap for Ireland against Canada in November. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Better late than never for Cork tighthead prop as he enjoys his best campaign yet

Backrow CJ Stander will start for Munster against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day at Thomond Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

Rediscovered Thomond Park X factor should be key for home side in intense battle

Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus dismissed speculation linking All Black fullback Ben Smith with Munster. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Munster coach welcomes fierce foes to Thomond for first time since arriving in Limerick

Leo Cullen: Leinster, as bulk suppliers, will have the most difficult job

Ireland players set to miss matches between Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster

Dejected Northampton Saints troop off after their heavy defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

Pro12 teams could provide four quarter-finalists in European Champions Cup

 Jack Carty celebrates the  winning  conversion with his team-mates after Connacht’s last-gasp victory over Wasps at the Sportsground. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Leinster primed for last-eight berth while Connacht and Ulster are firmly in the mix

Connacht’s Jack Carty watches his match-winning conversion against Wasps at the Sportsground, Galway. Photograph:  Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Jack Carty answers his critics as referee’s blunder leaves Wasps feeling stung

Connacht players celebrate with winning goal-kicker Jack Carty. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Outhalf worked on technique and mental preparation to improve flawed place-kicking

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