Rob Kearney lifts Ireland gloom with return to training
O'Driscoll and Sexton remain major concerns
ROB KEARNEY's return to training boosted Joe Schmidt's options for Sunday's clash with New Zealand, but the Ireland coach is still sweating over the availability of Brian O'Driscoll and Johnny Sexton, who both sat out yesterday's session.
Forwards coach John Plumtree reiterated that both players would be given as much time as possible to prove their fitness for the clash, with Sexton doing some "50-60pc" running on Tuesday to test out his hamstring strain before being given yesterday off.
There was not much contact in yesterday's session for Kearney to truly test his injured rib, but his ability to come through training will be a fillip to Ireland ahead of their daunting final November Test.
O'Driscoll has said he is confident of overcoming his calf strain and facing the All Blacks for the final time, but his absence from the field at Carton House yesterday was far from ideal ahead of tomorrow's team announcement.
Robbie Henshaw – who briefly replaced the Leinster legend during the first half of Saturday's defeat to Australia – is likely to come in at outside-centre if the injury doesn't clear up, while Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson is primed to replace Sexton at No 10.
Dave Kearney is the favourite to come in on the wing for the injured Fergus McFadden, and Conor Murray and Gordon D'Arcy could return in place of Eoin Reddan and Luke Marshall, respectively.
Jack McGrath is believed to be pushing fellow Leinster loosehead Cian Healy hard for a place in the pack, and Devin Toner should continue in the second-row alongside Paul O'Connell.
"Brian O'Driscoll is important and Johnny Sexton is important," Plumtree said. "Joe would have liked them to have trained the last couple of days, but the reality of it is that they haven't been able to.
"We still have two sessions and if they can get back on the field on Thursday we'd be pretty happy."
The New Zealander in charge of Ireland's forwards says the coaching staff have been working hard on instilling the belief in the team that they can beat the All Blacks despite last week's poor performance.
"Each individual that runs out that tunnel has to believe they can beat the All Blacks," said Plumtree. "If we have one person who runs out there that doesn't, then straightaway we are in poor shape.
"There are going to be pressure points and times when they are under pressure and that's where we will see if that belief is there.
"It is alright when you have got go-forward ball, but when you are getting pumped you have to be fighting hard then and that's going be important this weekend because that will come."
Meanwhile, New Zealand No 8 Kieran Read warned Ireland that no All Black wants to be on the first team to lose to Ireland. "We want to make sure that none of us are part of a team that eventually happens to," he said.