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Monday 18 February 2019

Champions Cup takes toll on Ireland

Iain Henderson of Ulster during the Champions Cup clash against Leicester
Iain Henderson of Ulster during the Champions Cup clash against Leicester

The roller-coaster ride that can be the build-up to Ireland's Six Nations opener has tilted slightly closer to England causing an upset.

When Owen Farrell pulled out of Saracens Champions Cup showdown with Glasgow, Brad Shields did likewise for Wasps' shot at Leinster and Joe Launchbury left the battlefield due to injury, it looked like Englishmen were falling like flies.

It turns out Farrell had a minor surgical intervention for a finger issue that should be resolved in 10 days.

The son of Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell is as important to England as Jonathan Sexton is to Ireland.

Then, the drip-feed of Ireland defections began yesterday morning.

It was revealed how Quinn Roux had made the Sunday flight to Portugal for Ireland's four-day training camp as a direct replacement for the unfortunate Tadhg Beirne.

Munster's man-of-the-match against Exeter had paid the price with a knee injury.

It's serious enough to force his removal for the first two rounds of the Six Nations at home to England on Saturday week and away to Scotland in Murrayfield the following week.

Then, it was revealed how Iain Henderson, Ulster's man-of-the-match against Leicester Tigers, will be out for "several weeks" with a finger injury.

It is important to stress how Ulster Rugby confirmed it is "unrelated" to the thumb surgery Henderson had just returned from.

It means Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will have to lean heavily on Leinster's James Ryan and Devin Toner as his headline combination.

Connacht's Ultan Dillane and Roux will be the back-up plan to see out the first two rounds, maybe even further into the seven-week competition.

Leinster's Jack Conan is another in the casualty ward from the shoulder injury that prevented his participation for Leinster on Saturday.

There is strong confidence the number eight will be fit to train fully from next Monday in Carton House.

Munster wing Andrew Conway was also kept at home in order to make a full recovery from a knock picked up against The Chiefs at Thomond Park.

Conway's loss was Adam Byrne's gain, the Kildare man making the trip to Portugal on foot of fine form.

In addition, first-choice full-back Rob Kearney and second-choice loose-head Jack McGrath never boarded the plane to Portugal.

Instead, the experienced pair have been held back for Leinster game time against Scarlets on Friday night (KO 7.35, TG4 & eir Sport 1) in the PRO14 League.

Flanker Dan Leavy has still not been cleared to return from his calf injury.

Out-half Ross Byrne has entered into his return-to-play protocols from a head-on-head concussive blow against Wasps.

It all points to reduced options for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and less than perfect preparation that was expected in the Portuguese sunshine.

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