Earls set to return as he sets sights on Six Nations
The injury nightmare which has kept Keith Earls out of the Irish team since Joe Schmidt took charge might be about to finally come to an end, with the Munster winger on track for a January return which could leave him in line to appear in the Six Nations campaign.
Earls is bidding to recover from a knee problem picked up in national camp in August and to finally line out under Schmidt.
He has not played for Ireland since March 2013 as a series of injury problems have ruled him out - the Limerick man's last game for Munster was against Glasgow Warriors in the Pro12 in May.
Earls, two games shy of a century for Munster, has yet to resume training, but might yet feature in the concluding Champions Cup pool games in the new year.
Munster assistant coach Ian Costello said that Earls was included in the Champions Cup squad and would be eligible to play if fit in January when they play Saracens away and Sale Sharks at home in their concluding pool games.
"It's happened in the last couple of years when James Coughlan and Tommy O'Donnell have come back a little bit ahead of schedule, so we'll keep Keith, a quality player like that, as an option for rounds five and six. If it works out, great."
Earls went for surgery in September to sort out the knee injury and Costello said the 27-year old is making great progress but a definite timeline has not been fixed for his return.
"He's going really well, they're very pleased with him, that's all I know, January, February.
"Well, Six Nations, that's Ireland's business. We're not sure to be honest with you. It's still not on our short-term radar."
What is on Munster's short-term radar is which Irish players they might have available for Friday night's Pro12 clash with Ulster at Thomond Park as they countdown to the back-to-back Champions Cup encounters with Clermont Auvergne.
Munster expect to know today which internationals will be available, and Costello said they will plan accordingly.
"We've spoken about the need to train with us. So if they weren't available to train with us Wednesday I think it would be difficult for us to keep the momentum going.
"(Head coach) Axel (Foley) has been speaking to Joe, so the final decisions will be made (today).
"There's a few that I think they need a little bit more information on but we'd be hopeful of getting a few of them back and then it's up to us as to how we use them at the weekend."
"They have a pretty extensive management programme and it all depends on what they've done up to this point. There's very few of them who've played all three games - Simon Zebo is the exception - so it completely depends on a management block.
"So we look at the next period of time and the limited game time that's managed by the IRFU.
"We work out the balance of what we have and what we need to come back."
Conor Murray is following the return to play protocol on head injuries, while Andrew Conway, injured in the opening half of the 38-12 win away to Dragons on Friday night, is also following the same procedure.
Argentinian hooker Eusebio Guinazu, who was a late withdrawal before Friday night's game in Rodney Parade with a tight hamstring, is also being monitored ahead of the derby encounter with Ulster.
A number of other Munster players, including Donnacha Ryan (toe), Damien Varley (foot), Mike Sherry (shoulder), Cian Bohane (knee) and James Cronin (ankle) are continuing with their rehabilitation programmes as they battle to return to front-line action.
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