Grand Slam-chasing Ireland are confident they have sufficient squad depth to cope without injured lock Tadhg Beirne for the remainder of the Guinness Six Nations.
The 31-year-old Munster player has been ruled out for up to 12 weeks due to the ankle issue he sustained during Saturday’s 32-19 win over France in Dublin.
British and Irish Lion Beirne, who has played a key role in his country’s rise to the top of the world rankings, left the Aviva Stadium on crutches and was scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday.
Ireland have already dealt with significant injury setbacks in the opening two weeks of the tournament, with influential prop Tadhg Furlong and first-choice scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park yet to feature and star hooker Dan Sheehan sitting out against Les Bleus.
While the loss of Beirne is another major blow, defence coach Simon Easterby is optimistic Andy Farrell’s side are well placed to manage.
“Tadhg has been phenomenal, hasn’t he, over the last couple of seasons,” Easterby told a press conference.
“But like we’ve already had to do over the course of this championship, we’ve had to adapt and that’s testament to the squad and the work the players have put in that even those guys who might not expect to be involved step in and the standard and performance doesn’t drop.
“It’s really unfortunate that we’ve lost Tadhg but we’re very fortunate with the stocks that we have available to us in his position.
“Other players have stepped in and the performance hasn’t dipped so I guess that’s part and parcel of the game.
“The mentality was a couple of years ago to make sure we have more than just 30, 31, 32, 33 players available, we certainly have drilled down into players underneath those and we feel we’re in a much better place to lose someone like Tadhg and not lose performance in players that come in.”
Head coach Farrell said following the weekend match that Beirne’s issue “did not look great”, with his fears subsequently confirmed by an IRFU statement on Thursday morning.
Ireland sit top of the championship table on the back of bonus-point wins over Wales and France ahead of a round-three trip to Italy on February 25.
Ulster captain Iain Henderson replaced Beirne against France and is the obvious choice to come into the second row to partner James Ryan in Rome, while Leinster pair Ryan Baird and Joe McCarthy and Connacht’s Cian Prendergast are other options.
In more positive news for Farrell, captain Johnny Sexton and hookers Rob Herring and Sheehan may be available at Stadio Olimpico, while Easterby is upbeat about Furlong featuring at some stage of the competition.
“He’s in a really good place but he knows his own body and understands how that works,” Easterby said of the Leinster tighthead, who has been sidelined by a calf complaint.
“We’re very hopeful, and so is he, that he will be involved at some point during this Six Nations.
“But it’s the sort of injury, like a lot of soft-tissue injuries, that you want to make sure you don’t get wrong.
“You want to make sure you get it right and they feel like they’ve got enough in the bank in terms of exposure to the high intensity of the game.” Skipper Sexton is rehabilitating the groin he injured against Fabien Galthie’s reigning Six Nations champions in the hope of being fit to return to training this week.
Herring is undergoing return-to-play protocols after sustaining a nasty head blow in a high tackle from France prop Uini Atonio, while fellow number two Sheehan is recovering well from his hamstring problem.