PAUL O'CONNELL looks set to miss the Six Nations following confirmation that the Munster second-row will have surgery on his back before the week is out.
It is expected that the rehabilitation process from the surgery will take up to eight weeks, and the development places a question mark over the former Lions captain's chances of making this summer's tour to Australia.
O'Connell has exhausted all other avenues open to him and will go under the knife to resolve a long-standing bulging disc injury in his lower back in a development Munster coach Rob Penney has heralded as positive.
"I think it's a really massive step forward, because the uncertainty for Paul has been, obviously, a frustration," said Penney. "He's been beavering away with a whole lot of medical support. It's been what they would term a conservative management of his injury and they've come to the conclusion that the time is now."
This injury first surfaced during O'Connell's rehab from the knee damage sustained in March. It resurfaced during Ireland's preparations for the November international with South Africa and is expected to keep him sidelined for at least eight weeks. O'Connell previously had surgery on his back in 2001/02, but this latest problem is not related to that injury.
Penney was understandably moderate when discussing the upcoming surgery, saying: "Whatever happens, let's just hope he's got full use of his faculties and has everything he possesses so he can live a normal and healthy life – the rugby stuff is secondary."
However, hopes are high within the squad that this development will be a positive one for the talismanic second- row. It is believed that the surgery will rescue some of O'Connell's season, but he will in all probability miss all of Ireland's Six Nations championship, which starts in Wales on February 2.
It is also unlikely he will have recovered in time to make an impression on Lions coach Warren Gatland. O'Connell has previously resigned himself to missing out on the Tour to Australia.
"I'd love to go but at this stage it's probably not looking great for me," he said back in November.
Given his undoubted abilities and standing within the game, though, if he returns to full fitness and resumes playing with Munster before the season is out there is every chance he could be included in the travelling party.