Kearney blow adds to Leinster injury woe
LEINSTER are facing a Heineken Cup injury crisis after confirming Rob Kearney will be out for "the next few months".
And while coach Joe Schmidt is hopeful that Brian O'Driscoll can recover quickly from his fractured jaw, the Irish captain will still remain on the doubtful list.
Kearney faces a race to be fit for Ireland's Six Nations campaign. He picked up a knee injury in last month's defeat by the All Blacks and underwent surgery last week.
His long lay-off is the latest injury blow to Schmidt who looks set to face his old club Clermont Auvergne without three of his first-choice backs.
Louthman Kearney looks certain to miss the rest of the province's difficult Heineken Cup pool games, in which they face back-to-back clashes with the French champions as well as matches against Saracens and Racing Metro.
With doubts over O'Driscoll's fitness and Luke Fitzgerald already out of the French double-header, Schmidt will need to successfully reconfigure his backline for at least one of the clashes against his old club.
Even the option of promoting rising star Andrew Conway, who has impressed with two tries in two starts in recent weeks, has been ruled out due to a neck injury the Blackrock wing picked up against the Ospreys which will keep him out for three weeks.
Isa Nacewa would be expected to move to full-back to replace Kearney, with Shane Horgan coming in on the right wing. But it is the vacancy on the left wing that will cause the most problems, with both Fitzgerald and Conway out and other candidates deployed elsewhere, leaving resources thin on the ground and the prospect of playing a novice more than likely.
Centre options Fergus McFadden, Eoin McFadden or Shaun Berne don't have much, if any, experience on the wing and, with O'Driscoll definitely out of the first game, Schmidt would be loath to shift Gordon D'Arcy out to his old wide position.
He may have no choice but to go for David Kearney or Niall Morris, normally a full-back, but Morris has not played for the first team in months and Kearney has failed to impress in recent weeks.
Isaac Boss could be a more left-field selection, having appeared on the right wing in four of his first five Test appearances for Ireland, with Eoin Reddan and Paul O'Donohoe also available at scrum-half.
As the former Clermont backs coach, Schmidt will be well aware of the dangers of going into battle against the imperious men in yellow with such callow resources out wide.
Currently seventh in the Top 14, Vern Cotter's charges possess one of Europe's most devastating right-wingers in France international Julien Malzieu, who would be keen to prove his worth having been left out by Marc Lievremont for the November Internationals and would relish a run against a rookie opponent.
The selection for Friday night's Magners League clash with Scarlets will give an insight into Schmidt's thinking on the issue, but even the weather will work against him as snow has ruled out any outdoor training.
Leinster will travel to Wales tomorrow, but conditions are not much better across the Irish Sea, so whatever selection Schmidt settles on is unlikely to get much time together outdoors before the match.
Another factor that will affect selection is the fact that Nathan Hines is currently stranded in Scotland after featuring in their victories over South Africa and Samoa in recent weeks.
Richardt Strauss is set to return to the squad, having missed out on the Ospreys defeat, and will be a welcome relief for the blues who are short of experience at hooker, while Berne is also expected to return for the second trip to Wales in five days.
Frustrated Ireland squad members Sean O'Brien and Mike Ross will be hungry to start, while Devin Toner also comes into the mix having won his first three caps in recent weeks.
Their return will give Schmidt some heart, but he is set for a stressful lead-up to Christmas as the fallout from the November Internationals hurts his European ambitions.