Massive blow as Ireland's Six Nations hopes are hit by double injury woe
Ireland will have to do without Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe for their Six Nations title defence, but it is understood Henderson is holding out some hope of making a comeback in time for the three-Test summer tour of South Africa.
That's despite Ulster head coach Neil Doak yesterday saying "it looks like Iain will be out for the remainder of the season" due to the significant hamstring injury he suffered last month.
The 23-year-old, who had been expected to play a pivotal role in the national team's campaign in the wake of Paul O'Connell's retirement, will have to bide his time but is believed to be more optimistic about his return-to-play date.
A quick healer, Henderson required a cage around his left leg after the injury but that protection is no longer needed and he is already walking normally and able to undertake upper body work.
Winger Bowe last night confirmed to the BBC that his Six nations hopes are doomed.
The 31-year-old has not played since Ireland's World Cup defeat against Argentina.
"Unfortunately it's a slow process and to rule yourself out of the Six Nations is disappointing," said Bowe.
"I have to concentrate on getting myself back to where I was and there's no point in rushing it.
"To be back by the start of February is unlikely but I'm still pretty positive I can add something to Ulster's season."
Henderson's Ulster colleague Jared Payne is in a race to be fit for the tournament as he continues to rehabilitate his injured foot, while Tommy Bowe will meet a knee specialist this week to ascertain the timescale of his return from the torn posterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in the World Cup defeat to Argentina. He looks unlikely to feature in the Six Nations.
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There was better news for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt in Connacht where Robbie Henshaw is expected to return from his broken hand next week against Brive.
The centre suffered the injury during the province's win over Munster in November, but looks like having three weeks to prove his fitness before Ireland's campaign gets under way.
Cian Healy has used his two-week suspension to go under the knife and clear out the knee injury he suffered in Leinster's win over Munster last month.
The minor procedure is not expected to keep him out of the Six Nations and he could feature for the province in their remaining Champions Cup games against Bath and Wasps.