Ireland unlikely to rush talismanic fly-half Johnny Sexton back into action
Ireland could still hold Johnny Sexton back from facing Italy despite their talismanic fly-half nearing full fitness for Saturday's RBS 6 Nations clash.
Sexton was sidelined with calf trouble for the 27-22 loss in Scotland that leaves Ireland chasing four victories to stand a chance of contesting the 2017 Six Nations crown.
Team manager Paul Dean admitted Ireland bosses could yet put the brakes on the 31-year-old's return this week, even though Sexton is itching to return.
Munster's Ian Keatley has remained with Ireland as cover, while Dean confirmed influential centre Jared Payne should miss the entire tournament with his kidney problem.
"Johnny is continuing his rehab and his progress will be monitored across the week, but he's back running which is very positive," said Dean.
"As you well know, Johnny would play today if we'd let him but we have to monitor his recovery and make sure he's fine."
Sexton exacerbated a minor calf issue in Leinster's 24-24 Champions Cup draw at Castres on January 20, and then failed to beat the issue in time for last weekend's Scotland trip.
Now Ireland appear ready to take no chances whatsoever with their linchpin playmaker's fitness, eyeing the Dublin clash with France on February 25 as his more likely return.
Peter O'Mahony missed the Scotland defeat with hamstring trouble and is another who remains in the balance to be ready for Saturday's trip to Rome.
When quizzed on the realistic likelihood of Sexton and O'Mahony facing Italy, Dean continued: "It's hard to tell, but we have to manage them and make sure.
"They'd both play tomorrow, they'd play today. But we just have to make sure that they are ready."
Prop Tadhg Furlong is expected to be fit to face Italy despite a "bruised shoulder", while Donnacha Ryan and Finlay Bealham are both back in full training.
Wings Andrew Trimble and Andrew Conway are both expected to overcome groin injuries to be available to face Conor O'Shea's men at the Stadio Olimpico.
Dean could only reply "not at this stage" when asked whether Ulster's Payne would take any part in the tournament.
For so long the defensive glue in Ireland's backline, the Kiwi-born centre would certainly shore up the issues that beset Joe Schmidt's side in the Scotland loss.
The 31-year-old suffered a serious kidney problem in Ireland's autumn series however, and has remained sidelined since.
Ireland continue to maintain they can still win the Six Nations, but centre Robbie Henshaw has admitted the Scotland defeat ramps up the pressure.
Leinster star Henshaw believes Ireland will now feel the pinch of needing four straight wins to stand any chance of silverware.
"I think there is a confidence that this team can still win the championship," said Henshaw.
"What this team did last year and in November, it's incredible, it's an incredible group, so I think if we get ourselves together we can go on and contest for a championship.
"The fact we can't afford to slip up, that applies a lot more pressure. We have to go out and win every game, and obviously chase the bonus point if it's there.
"So it applies a lot more pressure to the squad. The squad might not be used to that, but hopefully it can only help us perform and get the bets out of us as a group."