Donnacha Ryan has now almost certainly played his 47th and last match for Ireland, barring an extreme injury crisis in secondrow. Photograph: Morgan Treacy

Munster will have little option but to look abroad to replace international secondrow

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus on Donnacha Ryan’s departure: “He knows we wanted to keep him and we really tried our best.”  Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

South African admits ‘speculation’ on future ill-timed ahead of Munster-Toulouse clash

Rassie Erasmus: “There have been formal and informal chats the past few months. It’s just speculation at this stage. I was in South Africa my whole life so I know the set-up really well.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

“I’m big friends with the current (South African) coaches and management team”

A banner at the Aviva Stadium during the Guinness November series.  Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

A recommendation from World Cup Technical Review Group will be crucial

  Taoiseach  Enda Kenny with World Rugby Technical Review Group members  (l-r) Brett Gosper,  Linda Hoey, Robert Brophy,Alan Gilpin  and Ross Aitken at Government Buildings in Dublin. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Broadening the appeal of rugby in North America and Canada a potential selling point

Tadhg Furlong’s Six Nations performances have probably done enough to earn him a Lions starting spot. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The Six Nations has both cleared and muddied the water for coach Warren Gatland

Elliot Daly’s late try for England against Wales at the Principality Stadium clinched the only away win outside Rome in this season’s Six Nations tournament. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Tournament of close contests was hardly vintage but compellingly tribal as ever

Ireland celebrate after their 13-9 victory over England at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

After Saturday’s win against England, Schmidt has high hopes for 2019 World Cup

Jared Payne of Ireland is tackled by England’s Jonathan Joseph during the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Ireland won 13-9. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA.

Joe Schmidt takes positives of Ireland finishing on a high and investments paying off

 Thoroughly vindicated: Iain Henderson scores Ireland’s  try against England. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne Livepic/Reuters

Tackles overlooked by ref, but world-class outhalf makes sure to punish England

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton celebrates with Peter O’Mahony after the Six Nations win over England at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Eddie Jones’s side miss out on back-to-back Grand Slams and world record 19th win

CJ Stander: “I still get stressed before every game. It’s the unknown.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland flanker knew he wanted to wear green when he first saw match at Aviva

 Johnny Sexton is all smiles as Ireland pose for a team photograph at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Visitors have shown clinical streak that should help secure second consecutive Grand Slam

 Joe Schmidt: “Can we? We have to believe we can. We have got to go out there with that absolute belief.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland coach says injecting fresh legs into secondrow was reason for omitting Toner

 Ireland’s Simon Zebo enjoyed his spell at outhalf against Wales. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Winger’s playmaking skills have not had chance to shine in this year’s tournament

Ireland players  at the Principality Stadium last Friday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Peter O’Mahony is pushing hard but Ireland coach will likely resist urge to make changes

Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek on last week’s defeat to Wales: “There were a few errors but that’s probably due to what Wales did, and a little bit maybe us trying a bit too much.” Photograph:  Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Former All Blacks prop views England as toughest test yet for Joe Schmidt’s forwards

Jamie Heaslip: Remains a hugely influential, experienced cog in this Irish team.   Photograph: Neil Munns/EPA

But strong argument for reintroducing Payne at the expense of Ringrose or Kearney

Last throw of the dice: Joe Schmidt believes Ireland have a “fantastic chance” of getting something out of the championship. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Coach believes players will step up against rampant England in Six Nations finale

Jonathan Sexton, Rory Best and Conor Murray in dejected mood after Ireland’s loss to Wales in the Principality Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

If Ireland want to be champions again, they will have to learn how to win on the road

The players react as the final whistle blows during the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Eddie Jones’s side could arrive in Dublin with title and chasing Grand Slam

George North scores the first of his two tries in the Six Nations  game against Ireland at the  Principality Stadium  in Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Familiar Welsh tactics help smother the Ireland team at the Principality Stadium

Seán O’Brien in action against the All Blacks: “There’s a shared workload in the backrow now.” Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Flanker relishing challenge of Ireland’s Six Nations showdown with Wales in Cardiff

Wales’ Justin Tipuric is tackled by Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander. The back row battle is likely to prove key in Cardiff. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Unrelenting physical battle in a raucous atmosphere a real test of Ireland’s mettle

Tommy Bowe at an Ireland squad session at Carton House, Co Kildare. Coach Joe Schmidt outlined his reasons why he recalled the Ulster winger to the bench ahead of Craig Gilroy. Photograph: Inpho

Ireland coach defends decision to recall Bowe to the bench in place of the injured Trimble

Garry Ringrose set to hold off challenge of the returning Jared Payne at outside centre

Referee Wayne Barnes awards a penalty to Wales in the last minute of normal time which leads to Ireland’s defeat in the 2012 Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Alan Betson.

Record with the English referee in charge is noticeably worse than with any other

John Ryan and Paddy Jackson taking part in  Ireland’s squad training session at Carton House yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ulster player’s lack of match fitness a major issue as Ireland consider side to face Wales

History in the making: Ireland won their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 1948 at the Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium in Cardiff in 2009. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Joe Schmidt’s men know their first Six Nations Friday night match will be a tough battle

Ireland’s Jared Payne had been sidelined since the November meeting with Australia. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster man’s place looks secure but competition intensifying in squad

England captain Dylan Hartley and backrow James Haskell talk to referee Romain Poite during the Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham. Photograph:  Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

Incidents at Twickenham and Aviva show how interpretation of law differs among referees

Jamie Heaslip and Paddy Jackson during open training at the Aviva Stadium on Monday. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ireland are confident that Rob Kearney will be able to resume training early next week

A general view of the Aviva Stadium during Saturday’s Six Nations match between Ireland and France. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

‘We’re known for our hosting in Ireland and we do it really well’

Jamie Heaslip cools off during the Ireland open training session at the Aviva Stadium on Monday. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Fullback to undergo scan of groin injury that forced him off in France game

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose tackled by  Djibril Camara of France in Saturday’s Six Nations clash at  Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Mentally stronger, better disciplined Ireland wear France down to grind out result

Italy’s Tommaso Benvenuti is tackled by England’s Ben Youngs. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Irish side head into Wales clash with points difference of +58 compared to England’s +29

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

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