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Schmidt could be without Sexton and Murray for Italy


Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will hold the key for Ireland against Wales today

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will hold the key for Ireland against Wales today

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will hold the key for Ireland against Wales today

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will keep all fingers and toes crossed so that Conor Murray will receive positive news from further scans to his neck this week.

It doesn't look good, on the face of it, because he was set to consult a specialist last week and the order for further investigation means there is obvious pain or discomfort there without exact identification of the injury.

The timeline does not look too good as Ireland prepare for their Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday week in Rome.

Worryingly, Leinster's Eoin Reddan has "strained medial ligaments," according to the Ireland medical update yesterday, which will need every encouragement to heal.

Schmidt does run the risk of going into the Italian match without his half-backs Murray and Jonathan Sexton, still scheduled for a return to action on February 14 unless given clearance to play by his neurosurgeon in Paris.

There is more upbeat information on third-choice scum-half Kieron Marmion, first choice centre Robbie Henshaw and wing Keith Ealrs as they were all passed fit to train this week out in Carton House.

It could just be that the hour has come for Marmion to take his impressive form to the Six Nations stage, especially with Isaac Boss struggling to shake off former Ireland U20 captain Luke McGrath at his club.

The dynamic in the centre has changed with Henshaw set to share the midfield with either the under-cooked Jared Payne, the deposed Gordon D'Arcy or the on-song Luke Fitzgerald. The iron will of Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip is being tested by playing through the pain barrier of an AC shoulder joint injury.

For all of Ireland's often alluded to strength in depth in the back row, there is no standout character to wear the jersey that has almost become part of Heaslip's personal wardrobe.

Robin Copeland has not been able to unseat CJ Stander, not yet Irish qualified, as Munster's high king with Peter O'Mahony stationed there against Sale on Sunday in what could very well be a pointer to Schmidt's Plan B. It is surely too soon to consider Leinster's Jack Conan for his international debut, although the Wolfhounds-Saxons match on Friday could open up an opportunity for a serious run at the World Cup squad.

Flanker Rhys Ruddock has been returned to Leinster in order to continue to work on the fractured forearm that kept him away from the last two rounds of the Champions Cup.

Beyond that, Ulster's Iain Henderson made an astonishing return against Leicester Tigers in The Champions Cup to further enhance his growing reputation.

It all points to a sooner rather than later call for Seán O'Brien to resume even though Jordi Murphy has hit a rich vein for form just when it mattered most for Leinster.

Munster second row Dave Foley has endured ligament damage to his wrist to take him out of contention for the Irish Wolfhounds.

This is not quite the setback it could have been given the automatic selection of captain Paul O'Connell and consistency of Devin Toner.