O'Brien set for Rome start as Ferris battles to face France
SEAN O'Brien looks certain to make only his second start for Ireland in Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy following confirmation that Stephen Ferris will miss the trip to Rome.
O'Brien, whose sole previous start came against Samoa last November, is in line to form part of the back row -- possibly alongside David Wallace and Denis Leamy -- after the IRFU admitted over the weekend that Ferris will not be fit in time to face Italy.
O'Brien has been in brilliant form for Leinster in helping them power through to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and the Carlow native looks a candidate for the No 7 shirt.
Ferris, meanwhile, is struggling to recover from the cartilage injury sustained to his right knee while playing for Ulster and remains a doubt for the February 13 clash against France at the Aviva Stadium.
"The knee did not respond to the rest period and Ferris was referred to the knee specialist who confirmed yesterday (January 28) that while the injury did not require surgery, he would not be available for the Italy game," said an IRFU statement.
Ferris joins a long injury list that includes fellow back-rower Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery, Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney.
Declan Kidney didn't get much solace from the Wolfhounds' disappointing defeat to Scotland 'A' on Friday night, but Gavin Duffy, Tomas O'Leary and Kevin McLaughlin have all been called up to the senior squad.
The Italians have injury problems of their own with a question mark over their captain Sergio Parisse. The talismanic No 8 suffered a dislocated finger when Stade Francais beat Castres last week but the Italian medical team are confident he'll be fit to face Ireland.
With flanker Robert Barbieri and centre Gonzalo Garcia also struggling with injuries, coach Nick Mallett has bolstered his squad with the addition of flanker Josh Sole, lock Valerio Bernabo and versatile back Matteo Pratichetti who all played for Italy 'A' against the Saxons.
Elsewhere, Harlequins eased to a comfortable 38-13 Anglo-Welsh Cup victory over their local rivals Wasps in a historic encounter in Abu Dhabi yesterday. The match was the first English domestic fixture to be staged overseas and was played in perfect conditions in the luxurious grounds of the Emirates Palace Hotel.
Designated home side Wasps agreed to move the fixture between the two Premiership sides from Adams Park, but may now regret that decision as they found themselves on the back foot under the floodlights of the temporary 5,000-seat stadium.