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Irish cool injury fears ahead of Italy opener

Brian O'Driscoll is keeping his mantle as Irish captain ahead of the Six Nations defence as the Irish camp played down injuries which are hampering Declan Kidney's preparations 10 days before the Italy opener.

After a hectic couple of weeks in the Heineken Cup for Leinster, Munster and Ulster, the number of Irish walking wounded reached double figures.

But the situation has been down-played by Ireland manager Paul McNaughton, who is sure coach Kidney will have a full deck to deal with for the opening Croke Park joust.

"Several guys weren't able to train this week," said McNaughton from the squad's Limerick base yesterday, as he announced a 22-man 'A' squad to take on the England Saxons in Bath on Sunday.

"To a certain extent this is a normal state of affairs, especially after weeks five and six of the Heineken Cup. It's one of the reasons we had such an enlarged squad in the first instance.

"But we are expecting everyone to be fit and available. It's not surprising so many are off their feet -- it's happened before."

Several players sat out training yesterday. Donncha O'Callaghan (knee), Sean Cronin (ankle), Denis Hurley (leg) and Stephen Ferris (shin) were not involved, while Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonathan Sexton and Shane Horgan missed the session as a precaution.

Keith Earls had not yet arrived in camp because of illness, while Rory Best, Marcus Horan and Jerry Flannery, who has a slight shoulder problem, all stepped up their training after their recent absences from their provincial sides as they seek to garner some valuable playing time this weekend in order to be considered for the game against the Azzurri.

Paddy Wallace's Six Nations hopes received a blow yesterday when he was named in the 22-man Ireland 'A' squad for Sunday's game against the England Saxons.

Although Wallace's inclusion in the 'A' squad does not automatically mean that he won't feature in the Six Nations opener against Italy on February 6, the centre must now be fearing the worst.

Ireland 'A' squad: R Best (Banbridge/Ulster), I Boss (Ballymena/Ulster), T Buckley (Shannon/Munster), D Cave (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), R Caldwell (Dungannon/Ulster), I Dowling (Shannon/Munster), J Fogarty (De La Salle Palmerston/Leinster), M Horan (Shannon/Munster), I Humphreys (Ballymena/Ulster), D Hurley (Cork Con/Munster), S Jennings (St Mary's College/Leinster), K Matthews (Buccaneers/Connacht), J Muldoon (Galwegians/Connacht), F McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster), J Murphy (Leicester), M O'Driscoll (Cork Constitution/Munster), S O'Brien (Clontarf/Leinster), N Ronan (Shannon/Munster), M Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), P Stringer (Shannon/Munster), D Toner (Lansdowne/ Leinster), P Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster).