Sexton's injury blow could hamper Lions chances
THE injury curse that has haunted Ireland throughout the 2013 RBS 6 Nations struck once again today when Jonathan Sexton was ruled out of Saturday's showdown with Italy because of a foot injury.
Just two hours after being restored to the starting XV for the Stadio Olimpico clash, the Leinster fly-half was withdrawn after tearing a tendon in his left foot in training this morning.
The injury was initially viewed as only a minor complaint, resulting in his selection, but a scan completed shortly before the team's departure for Rome told a different story.
"Jonny has torn a tendon in his left foot and is therefore ruled out this weekend," read an Irish Rugby Football Union statement.
Sexton had returned to full training this week after recovering from the hamstring strain that forced him to sit out the defeat to Scotland and draw with France and his continued absence is a cruel blow to player and team.
It was a final opportunity for him to impress British and Irish Lions selectors and deliver a timely reminder of why he was the pre-tournament favourite to become their fly-half in the summer Test series against Australia.
In contrast England's Owen Farrell - his chief rival for the position - has recovered from a thigh strain and will face Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.
Paddy Jackson, who deputised for Sexton against Scotland and France, will continue in his absence with Ian Madigan supplying cover from the bench.
Jackson impressed against Les Bleus, but Ireland were desperate to select their chief playmaker for a match that could decide whether they finish third or last.
While last week's team announcement against France was, at best, confusing as Ireland issued conflicting messages over their fly-half situation, they could not be blamed for the rapid turn of events that forced them to backtrack today.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for head coach Declan Kidney and his management team, who have been firefighting injury from the opening round of the tournament.
Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe were ruled out of the entire Six Nations before it began, while Gordon D'Arcy and Simon Zebo sustained championship-ending injuries early on.
Mike McCarthy, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy and Eoin Reddan have also missed game time, while the likes of Jackson, Marshall, Brian O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan have faced fitness tests on a variety of knocks.
In particular, O'Driscoll and Ryan have been playing through the pain barrier and will be patched up and sent into battle one last time this weekend.
O'Driscoll, along with centre partner Marshall, was concussed against France, but both players have been passed fit to face Italy.
The pack is unchanged from the eight that started against France with Ryan being given a clean bill of health after taking a bang on his shoulder at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Gilroy returns on the right wing after overcoming a groin strain, replacing rib-fracture victim McFadden.
Substitute scrum-half Reddan fractured his leg against France, so uncapped Ulsterman Paul Marshall wins a spot on the bench that includes Devin Toner.
Kidney explained that Toner's line-out prowess earned him the nod over Donncha O'Callaghan as second-row cover.
It could be O'Driscoll's last Six Nations match and Kidney's final game in charge with both of their contracts set to expire this summer.
Kidney refused to lament the injury crisis, even though it could yet contribute to his downfall.
"Players will always get bangs and knocks. It's a physical contact game, no different to American football," he said.
"If you wait to be perfect, you'll never have a team, but no player will ever go out on the field unless he is ready to go.
"We've lost two matches by a combined total of 10 points. A couple of small things and you could be in the winner's enclosure very quickly. But now isn't the time to moan, it's time to roll your sleeves up.
"It's a huge honour for me to be involved in Ireland and I'm looking forward to Saturday."