IRELAND'S worst Heineken Cup weekend looks set to have a serious impact on Declan Kidney's Six Nations plans after Tommy Bowe and Richardt Strauss picked up serious knee injuries.
The four provinces picked up a total of three losing bonus points as they all were beaten in their pool matches, but it is the news that Bowe requires surgery on the lateral ligament injury he suffered in Ulster's defeat to Northampton Saints and Strauss' early exit from the fray at Lansdowne Road that will cause the Ireland coach the greatest concern.
Kidney will almost certainly have to plan without the 28-year-old winger for the Six Nations, while Strauss, who started both of Ireland's Tests last month, is also a major doubt after he suffered a suspected cruciate ligament injury.
The news capped a disastrous weekend for the Irish provinces in Europe that saw Connacht lose in Biarritz, Leinster succumb to Clermont, Ulster lose their 100pc record against the Saints and Munster defeated by Saracens.
Bowe's chances of playing for the Lions will depend on his ability to return by the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in April. The Monaghan man started all three Tests for the tourists in 2009 and is a front-runner to feature in Warren Gatland's team this summer if fit.
He suffered the injury in the closing stages of the tense encounter at Ravenhill as Ulster tried frantically to get the late score that would have given them the win.
"An initial scan this morning revealed that he has sustained significant lateral ligament damage to his right knee," an Ulster statement said.
"He will undergo surgery later this week to repair the damage. At this stage it is not possible to put a timescale on how long his recovery period will be. A further update on this will be issued following the surgery, when the full extent of the injury will be known."
Bowe missed the tail end of last season and Ireland's tour of New Zealand when he required surgery on a haematoma near his kidney. He only returned to Ulster at the start of the season and had found form during the November internationals, when he scored two tries for Ireland against Argentina.
He took to Twitter last night to say: "Will have surgery this week on my knee, it's not as bad as I feared so hopefully be back soon."
Strauss left the field after 11 minutes of Leinster's 28-21 defeat to Clermont, which leaves the European champions' quarter-final hopes in real doubt. He will learn the full extent of his injury today.
Munster, meanwhile, can still qualify for the quarter-finals with two wins from their final two matches, against Edinburgh and Racing Metro, but Saracens have wrested control of a tight qualification Pool 1 following yesterday's victory.
"There's just critical moments that happen in a game and they capitalised on those critical moments and credit to them," said Munster head coach Rob Penney.