Marmion to return in boost for Friend and Schmidt
Kieran Marmion is set to give Joe Schmidt options at scrum-half for the remainder of the Six Nations as he returns to action this weekend for Connacht for the first time since featuring in the win over the All Blacks.
Marmion started that game against New Zealand to win his 24th cap but then underwent surgery a few days later on a troublesome ankle injury.
Connacht coach Andy Friend confirmed yesterday that Marmion, who turned 27 on Monday, had made a full recovery and will play against the Cheetahs on Saturday.
"Yeah, he'll play. He's back and available," said Friend, who added he expects him to come right back into contention for Ireland. "His last time running out there was against the All Blacks in an historic win, so I think that he will certainly be on the radar."
Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux have not been released from Irish camp but Ultan Dillane and the uncapped trio of Jack Carty, Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell have returned to the Sportsground.
Meanwhile, loosehead prop Denis Buckley has agreed a two-year contract extension is another boost for Friend. Buckley (28), who has chalked up 151 appearances with his native province, had attracted interest apparently from Ulster and Bristol where former Connacht coaches Dan McFarland and Pat Lam are in charge.
Elsewhere, Mako Vunipola has been ruled out of the rest of the Six Nations after suffering ankle ligament damage during last Sunday's victory over France.
The loosehead prop, who was England's man of the match in the victory over Ireland, has been ruled out for more than two months after being forced off the field during the 44-8 victory at Twickenham in the 44th minute.
Warren Gatland received a boost yesterday with Leigh Halfpenny available for Wales' Grand Slam eliminator against England on Saturday week after passing concussion protocols.
The full-back hasn't played since November 10 when he was injured in Wales' 9-6 win over Australia.
Galtand, however, will have to plan without Taulupe Faletau, who has had to undergo a second operation on his broken arm.