Joey Carbery to give Andy Farrell a festive boost after Sexton injury setback
With Johnny Sexton expected to be ruled out for at least the first two rounds of the Six Nations, new Ireland coach Andy Farrell will be heartened to hear that Munster's Joey Carbery will be fit and available before the year is out.
Although he has not yet stepped up his rehabilitation to take part in team training or contact, the out-half remains on track to return for one of the three festive interprovincial derbies, with the home fixture against Leinster on December 28 looking like the most likely date for his comeback.
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Johann van Graan remains cautious about his star back who has endured a torrid 2019 with injuries and has played just 40 minutes for Munster since January.
Scans have confirmed that Sexton's suspected medial ligament injury will keep him out for eight-10 weeks and unless he beats that time-frame, the 34-year-old will miss, at least, the rest of Leinster's pool matches and the Six Nations games against Scotland and Wales.
Ross Byrne will start at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday with either his 20-year-old brother Harry or 22-year-old Ciaran Frawley deputising.
With Jack Carty struggling for form in Connacht, Byrne and Carbery will be vying for the starting spot against Scotland with JJ Hanrahan also in the frame for a squad berth.
"We hope to have Joey back before the end of the month and I just want to reiterate that he hasn't been anything close to team training," Van Graan said. "That will be the next thing. Again, I'd love to pick him as soon as he comes back, but it's going to take time.
"After last season, from our point of view he was injured for a long time...your No 10 needs time so hopefully as soon as possible, hopefully before the end of the month but I have got no specific date.
Sexton will be joined on the sidelines by promising hooker Ronan Kelleher who fractured his hand against Northampton and the uncapped breakout star of the season is now in a race to be fit for the tournament.
The absence of Sexton also complicates the picture for the selection of a new captain, given the 35-year-old was the front-runner.
Peter O'Mahony and James Ryan are the other leading contenders and Van Graan said his skipper is more than capable of stepping up.
"He (O'Mahony) was captain when Ireland beat Australia in Australia and has been the Munster captain for a long time," he added.
"If he gets selected as Ireland captain he'll do a great job but luckily that's Faz's job and not mine."