Joe Schmidt calls on back-up boys to put the squeeze on Johnny Sexton
Joe Schmidt has called on his back-up fly-halves to ease his burden and stop him rushing Johnny Sexton back from injury to play France.
Either Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley will start Ireland's Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday week, before Sexton comes into the equation for the following week's home match against Les Bleus if he is passed fit to play when he meets his doctor next Thursday.
By that stage, the Racing Metro No 10 will have gone 12 weeks without a game having been stood down after suffering four concussions in 2014.
And Schmidt has challenged the starting out-half from Rome to ease the need to bring Sexton back.
"Johnny's in great shape, he'll train fully with us when he gets his clearance," Schmidt said.
"I guess part of the equation is how well Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley go in Italy. One of the things that's been a consistent feature is that when we've lost guys who weren't available, other guys have stepped up.
"So it would be great if people could keep putting pressure on each other. I haven't looked too far past Italy, so whatever happens in Italy will shape a little bit of the thinking regarding France.
"I'd love that to be the case. I think supporters would like that to be the case because if they do that we've had a better chance of beating Italy because they (Keatley or Madigan) have performed to a standard, and at the same time we don't feel as much pressure to get Johnny back on the pitch.
"He has started the last 11 tier-one Test matches that we've played, not counting Georgia, and that's quite a change if he's not there."
Sean O'Brien is likely to be selected today in the Ireland Wolfhounds squad that take on England Saxons as long as he comes through training at Carton House unscathed, while either Madigan or Keatley will lead the backline.
And Schmidt retains an open mind as to which one will start in Rome.
"I can honestly say I haven't (made that decision). One of them will obviously play on Friday night and we'll make a decision after that because we'll have to so that we can be as well prepared as we can be for the following weekend," he said.
Schmidt reckons Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip should return to fully training on Tuesday, while he said he is "quietly confident" that Conor Murray will be fit to face Italy.
Jack McGrath and Mike Ross are likely to see some game-time for the Wolfhounds, but the game will come too soon for Cian Healy, who Schmidt rates as "an outside chance for France".