Penney fears Irish 'shut-out' for Simon Zebo in plea for caution over winger's comeback
Munster coach Rob Penney has indicated that Simon Zebo has been "shut out" of the Ireland set-up as the winger slowly works his way back to fitness.
The Lions winger was a notable absentee from last week's pre-Six Nations squad training at Maynooth. He has been out of action with a foot injury since October and his return to the team has been delayed further, but Joe Schmidt did summon a number of injured players including Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan to attend the three-day get-together which finished on Christmas Eve.
Zebo's comeback date was expected to be in Friday's derby against Ulster at Ravenhill, but his coach has put that date back as he continues to work his way back from the broken bone in his foot. The winger and second-row Ryan -- who has suffered a fresh knee injury after a sustained period out -- are both doubts for the Heineken Cup meeting with Gloucester in two weeks' time.
One of the stars of last season's ill-fated international campaign, Zebo won the last of his six Ireland caps in front of Schmidt against the US Eagles in Houston in June. That night, he was called up for the Lions and played three times in Australia without earning a Test place.
His season so far has been disjointed, playing just four times before suffering his injury against Edinburgh which forced him out of the November internationals where Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe featured on the wings.
With Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls returning to fitness and Luke Fitzgerald approaching his best form after his injury nightmare, it appears Zebo has some work to do when he finally returns to force his way back into the frame.
"I think he'll be back on the grass this week," Penney said. "Obviously because of the nature of his injury we'll just be ultra-cautious. We've got some good boys going in the back three, if he's not right, he's not right.
"We don't need to try to force him because he's really important to Irish rugby I think. He's probably been shut out at the moment, so he just needs to come back and be in good form when he comes back so he can try to force his claims."
Meanwhile, James Coughlan -- who captained the Reds in Friday's bad-tempered win over Connacht -- believes that his side's nine-game winning run means they travel to Belfast with confidence.
Both sides are expected to be at full strength for what should be a cracking encounter ahead of the following week's key Heineken Cup games, with Penney anticipating that he will have all of his fit Ireland players available.
And Coughlan says that the consistent ability to win tight games no matter what team is put out on to the field is a real boost to morale in the league leaders' squad.
"It's great isn't it?" said the No 8. "It's a mark to the squad. That consistency we were banging on about at the start of the year, that we were lacking it, is coming in. We've had a couple of slip-ups so you just have to raise your game week in, week out because you know the next fella you're playing against wants to be the one to knock you off.
"We're going to have to keep that consistency going. The encouraging thing from our point of view is that we haven't been playing well. We've been grinding out wins -- we've got away with murder two weeks in a row so there's plenty to work on. If we actually start playing quite well, we'll be very dangerous and go a long way in both competitions."
Coughlan is expecting a ferocious encounter at Ravenhill as fifth-placed Ulster look to respond from Saturday's disappointing outing against Leinster.
"We've always struggled up there," the Dolphin man said. "It's up to us to man up and, like Friday, we're going to have to match them physically and be a bit more error-free.
"They've been playing very well at home and away. They had a very good win away against Montpellier as well and they're on a roll and want to be on top of the league as well. If we need to grind it out, we'll grind it out and I think that's a big addition to our game this year."