Ireland handed major lift by Cian O'Brien and Sean Healy returns

Two of Ireland's key forwards are back

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The Independent Online

Two of Ireland’s key forwards, the loose-head prop Cian Healy and the Lions Test flanker Sean O’Brien, could be back on green-shirted duty in good time for England’s visit to Dublin on Six Nations business at the beginning  of March.

That is not exactly the news Stuart Lancaster and the rest of the red-rose coaching team wanted to hear, but a major stimulus for the reigning champions, whose prospects of retaining the title in World Cup year have been blighted by injury.

Both Leinstermen have been in full training following long lay-offs – Healy with a serious hamstring problem, O’Brien with shoulder damage that required reconstructive surgery – and were briefly considered for the province’s important European Champions Cup match at Wasps tomorrow. Matt O’Connor, the Leinster coach, resisted the temptation to accelerate their return, but the Ireland national boss Joe Schmidt has included them in a 46-man squad for the forthcoming international tournament.

Other familiar faces in various states of incapacitation, including the Ulster wing Andrew Trimble and the Munster front-rower David Kilcoyne, were conspicuous by their absence, although Schmidt has not abandoned hope that they might find a way back by the end of the Six Nations. The coach named two uncapped players: the Leinster loose forward Jack Conan and the Connacht prop Nathan White, a New Zealander who won a domestic title with Waikato before heading to Ireland in search of Test honours.

There has been a good deal of controversy in Celtic lands on the subject of exiles from All Black country. After the Scotland coach Vern Cotter, very much a New Zealander himself, selected the back-row forward Hugh Blake in his Six Nations party even though the Under-20 cap has yet to play for Edinburgh after his recent arrival from the Otago Highlanders, there was a public cry of anguish from the former national captain Andy Nicol.

“There is surely something wrong when a Six Nations squad is announced and I have never heard of one of the players,” said the Heineken Cup-winning scrum-half. “Not played for Edinburgh, but picked for Scotland? I thought we had left these days long ago.” The last comment was a reference to a dark period in Scottish rugby history, when the Test side was crammed with so-called “kilted kiwis”.

Talking of which, there was another significant move in the market yesterday by London Irish, who confirmed that the 26-year-old outside-back Sean Maitland would join them from Glasgow on a long-term contract at the end of the season. Maitland, born in the Waikato town of Tokoroa and a Maori representative, qualifies for Scotland through his grandparents and made his international debut in 2013, performing well enough to make the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia that summer.

London Irish are an all-action club at the moment: after ending their long association with the rugby director Brian Smith last week, they installed the former lock Bob Casey as operations director, declared that Tom Coventry, a successful Super 15 coach from New Zealand, would be taking over the reins at the end of the southern hemisphere season and completed the signing of the All Blacks prop Ben Franks. By luring Maitland, a quality act at wing or full-back, they have made another bold declaration of intent.

Meanwhile, the Australian-born Exeter flanker Ben White has agreed a two-year extension with the Devon club. “He’s been one of our success stories,” said the head coach Rob Baxter. “He’s an energetic contributor who gives us the all-round package.”

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