Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton look set to face Samoa

Encouraging week for the Irish management as injuries clear up

Ireland’s Paul O’Connell who after being a major injury concern last week is on track to play against Samoa on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland’s Paul O’Connell who after being a major injury concern last week is on track to play against Samoa on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 


The odds on Paul O’Connell being able to lead Ireland against Samoa and Johnny Sexton starting at outhalf, along with Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien being fit to play as well, have all shortened appreciably after a largely encouraging week for the Irish management.

In any event, all the above eventualities have now lurched from varying degrees of doubt to ones of probability, with only Keith Earls (patella tendonitis) of the eight players who were hors de combat from training a week ago ruled out as yet, admittedly in an area where Ireland are already missing the injured Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy.

In particular, there was “relief” amongst the Irish coaching staff that Sexton did not appear for Racing Metro off the bench in their rain-sodden 9-6 defeat away to Biarritz on Saturday according to team manager Mick Kearney, “because I do think if he had been brought on Joe would have felt obliged to rest him for this weekend, so that was a positive.”

Albeit this came with the rider that “he had to leave here on Thursday evening at 6 o’clock to fly to Paris and then down to Biarritz in pretty miserable conditions and then had to get back here for Sunday night, so that would induce a certain level of fatigue in him. But he rocked up here on Sunday night in good form and is very keen to play on Saturday if he can convince Joe to pick him,” said Kearney with a smile. Nor was there any concern about the hip flexor strain which Racing coach Laurent Travers cited as a reason for not bringing Sexton on in the latter stages.

“He’s fine,” said Kearney at the squad’s Carton House base. “He did some kicking practise with Dave Alred last Wednesday and he did about two hours and he had a slight tightness but nothing at all that is going to keep him out of training this week so he is good to go.”

Cheekily retorted
Indeed, perhaps tellingly, when Sexton pitched up in camp on Sunday night and Joe Schmidt asked him how he was, the player cheekily retorted: “what’s the opposite to ‘flat’?”

This was in reference to Schmidt’s description of Sexton last week after the player had left camp to return to Paris. “I’m not sure if he read it, but it was certainly pointed out to him alright, yes,” confirmed Kearney with a smile, the manager adding that the player was indeed “quite bubbly”.

Nor was there any suggestion of Schmidt and his Racing counterpart Laurent Labit agreeing to each resting Sexton for a game this month. “That conversation didn’t happen and my understanding was that it was never going to happen like that,” said Kearney, alongside Eoin Reddan, who clearly found such a hypothesis amusing. With Brian O’Driscoll also “flying”, all in all the Irish squad were in a “much better place” than a week ago. “Last week there would have been genuine, major concern surrounding Paul in particular,” admitted Kearney. “That he has come through so well over the last couple of days is a real positive.”

“He went to Brian’s testimonial dinner on Friday night and was back out here on Saturday with Jason (Cowman) and one of the physios to do some running and he came through that really well. He’ll up that again today and train fully tomorrow.

Real bonus
That’s a real bonus, while guys like Mike Ross, Deccie Fitz (Fitzpatrick) and Rory Best coming through training really well towards the end of the week is a positive. Cian Healy – there would have been some concern about him as well. He has come through really well also, and then Seanie (O’Brien) will finish off his rehab today and then train tomorrow. The only person who has been ruled out is Keith, so from a list of eight or nine last week who were at various different injuries to having one ruled out for definite on the Monday of Test week is pretty pleasing for everyone.”

The captaincy, along with the team, will not be announced until Thursday. “I don’t think it will be named publically before then,” said Schmidt. “Obviously, the players will be informed before then, it could be tonight or it could be tomorrow – although Joe is away for most of tomorrow with an IRB coaches-referees meeting in London. He has talked about announcing the team later this evening or leaving it to Les tomorrow, but it will be Thursday before it is officially released.”

With Schmidt on record as saying these three games represent cup finals, the increased likelihood now is that he will name a fairly familiar and established starting line-up.