Johnny Sexton, Seán O’Brien and Keith Earls all available to face Scotland
The trio will all be fit for the Six Nations opener while Andrew Conway is out
Johnny Sexton is fit to play for Ireland in their Six Nations opener against Scotland at Murrayfield. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The only downside in terms of the official communiqué provided by former St Mary’s College, Leinster, Ireland and Lions outhalf and the new Ireland team manager, Paul Dean, is his first official engagement in the latter role, is that Andrew Conway suffered a recurrence of an existing groin injury and returned to Munster for treatment.
He is the only player not in consideration and the injury represents an unfortunate setback for the in-form Munster wing.
Dean explained: “It’s all positive [news] this week with one exception Andrew Conway aggravated an existing groin complaint. Unfortunately he is not with us and has been ruled out of the Scotland game.
“Seán O’Brien has completed his rehab on his calf injury and will train fully [on Monday afternoon]. Johnny Sexton continues to rehab a bruised calf and is making a lot of progress and he is on track [to train] on Tuesday. Keith Earls training load was managed last week and he will train fully this week.”
Rob Kearney twice came off the bench for Leinster in their Champions Cup matches against Montpellier and Castres Olympique to prove his fitness following an ankle injury sustained in early December against the Northampton Saints.
He’s endured the frustration of niggling ankle and hamstring injuries, and a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) that have prevented him from getting consistent game time and it has been a huge challenge mentally as well as physically in trying to find form.
Sitting alongside Dean, he was asked for his thoughts about the pressure he feels in trying to retain his place in the side, questions that he’s faced on a semi-regular basis in recent times. It’s hardly a new refrain.
“It’s not in the slightest for the first time. I’ve been feeling like that for a long, long time, right back to [when] Geordan [Murphy] and Girvan [Dempsey were playing].
“Felix [Jones] went through a stage there [and] you’ve got Zeebs [Simon Zebo] and you’ve got Tiernan [O’Halloran]. There was a huge amount of chat about Jared [Payne] last year, so it’s not something new whatsoever.
“I’m fully aware of the huge level of competition that’s there. It’s really important now that with the depth there right across the whole board, I know if I’m not playing well I won’t be there too long.”
He admitted that “there are four really viable options there,” in terms of rivals for the Ireland number 15 jersey, before addressing a question as to whether he felt that he had coach Joe Schmidt’s full backing going into the Six Nations.
“It’s like if I get picked for this Test this week I will have the full backing of Joe and then it’s up to me to make sure that I keep it. So anytime you’re given a jersey from one to 15 or 23 and you make a squad you know you have the backing of the coach. He’s not going to put me out there at the weekend if he doesn’t back me.”
His performance in Chicago silenced the critics and when he has played since then he’s contributed handsomely without ever managing that consistent run of matches. He played in the home game against the All Blacks and was then forced off because of a HIA in the match against Australia after 12 minutes.
An ankle injury against the Northampton Saints was untimely, causing him to miss among other games the Munster match and then having to settle for a place on the Leinster bench in the two pivotal Champions Cup encounters this month, where he only returned to full training on the Monday ahead of the Montpellier game at the RDS.
He did though manage more than 80 minutes in those two matches. He said: “The thing I’ve struggled with the most for the last 18 months is that you’re not going to play well if your body is not in a particularly good place. I’ve learned that the hard way.
“If you’re feeling good you’re confident, you’re body’s in a good place, you’ve got the backing of the coach, you’re around some world-class players and it does become easier to go out and play well.”
He’s likely to start at Murrayfield on Saturday, forming a back three alongside Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble. As he’s already pointed out, he’s aware that he has to excel to retain his position and provide a counter argument to the clamour for change. A healthy body gives him a fighting chance, which at this point is all he craves.