Friday 23 February 2018

O'Callaghan joins Sexton and Ferris on injury list

Hugh Farrelly

IRELAND'S injury problems continue to mount ahead of their critical Six Nations showdown with tournament favourites France in Paris next week after Donncha O'Callaghan was ruled out of tomorrow's clash with Italy.

The second-row joins out-half Jonathan Sexton and flanker Stephen Ferris on the casualty list after a knee injury problem flared up in training.

Leinster's Leo Cullen will, thus, come in for his first Six Nations appearance since he started the win over Wales in Cardiff in 2003 and Munster's Donnacha Ryan will take Cullen's place on the bench.

Given the one-week turnaround between the Italy and France games and the fact that O'Callaghan picked up the knock in Munster's Heineken Cup win over Northampton a fortnight ago, the 30-year-old's availability for the French game must now be a concern, although manager Paul McNaughton was optimistic on the issue yesterday.

"He was going fine, but he had a bit of a set-back on Wednesday and the call was made this morning that he wasn't fit for the Italian game. We don't think it's a concern beyond that, but these things change," said McNaughton.

The availability of Sexton and Ferris for Paris remains unclear, with the latter the biggest doubt having left camp to properly rehabilitate from a knee injury.

"Jonny is with us and he is making progress, Stephen has left the camp because we have to keep him off his feet. We will have a better idea on Monday when they get back into camp and we see how Jonny progressed over the weekend."

Meanwhile, Ireland have responded to Italy's targeting of the Irish scrum with forwards coach Gert Smal acknowledging that it has been identified as an area for special attention within the camp.

"Italy's pack is their strength -- not just in the scrums, but in the line-outs as well and that's our challenge. It's a new year and new challenges. If there is an area where we can grow, it is scrumming and we are busy behind the scenes and working hard on that," said Smal.

Loose-head Cian Healy, who packs down against the much-heralded Martin Castrogiovanni tomorrow, believes the Irish scrum has been unfairly identified as a weakness.

"I don't think the criticism is fair," said Healy.

"I don't understand why our scrum comes in for stick when it helped win a Grand Slam and Six Nations. But it's also something we're looking to turn into a strength for the team."

Irish Independent

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