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Imperious Earls can lift Munster and Ireland with return to fray

KEITH EARLS looks set for a timely return to action when Munster name their team tomorrow to take on London Irish in their opening Heineken Cup match in Reading's Madejski Stadium.

Earls has yet to play this season after injuring his ankle in pre-season when on his way to recovery from the groin problem that ruled him out of Ireland's summer tour.

However, he took a full part in training this week and could slot in next to Sam Tuitupou in the Munster midfield following Lifeimi Mafi's seven-week suspension for a dangerous tackle on Gordon D'Arcy in last weekend's 13-9 defeat to Leinster.

If Earls returns on Saturday it would be a huge boost for Ireland coach Declan Kidney as well as Munster's Tony McGahan as the Limerick man, who turned 23 last Saturday, brings an attacking threat that will be crucial to success in the Heineken Cup and November internationals.

However, it appears as if Tomas O'Leary will not be fit to take his place at scrum-half against London Irish, having damaged his hand against Leinster.


In his expected absence, Peter Stringer would be the natural choice as starting No 9, with Duncan Williams, who was called into the Munster squad on Tuesday, providing cover on the bench.

If O'Leary is ruled out for a number of weeks, it could bring the likes of Frank Murphy and Isaac Boss into the equation for November. O'Leary, Stringer and Eoin Reddan were the three scrum-halves on Ireland's summer tour.

Elsewhere, No 8 James Coughlan -- who started Munster's last Heineken Cup match, the semi-final defeat to Biarritz -- may come into the equation when Munster announce their side tomorrow for Saturday's game.

Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy and Niall Ronan started in the back-row against Leinster but, with Coughlan and Davis Wallace available, there is an opportunity to rest one of the three starters from last weekend for use as an impact substitute against the Exiles.

Meanwhile, following injuries sustained to Ireland's Alain Rolland and Wales' Nigel Owens, the ERC have announced refereeing changes for the weekend's Heineken Cup fixtures.

Ulster's clash with Aironi in Ravenhill tomorrow night is now to be refereed by England's Chris White.

Irish Independent