Leinster and Ireland prop Cian Healy could make his return from a serious hamstring injury a month ahead of schedule.
The 27-year-old loosehead was initially expected to be sidelined for five months following an operation to repair a hamstring he tore off the bone in training last September.
But a remarkable recovery has seen his return date moved forward from mid-February and he could be back in time for Leinster’s final two European Rugby Champions Cup pool matches against Castres on January 17 and/or Wasps a week later.
The news comes as a massive boost for Ireland as it means Healy may well be ready to face Italy in the defending champions’ Six Nations opener on February 7 in Rome.
Leinster scrum coach Marco Caputo says the next few days will determine when Healy will be able to return to the field.
“There’s a balancing act and it’s about managing the risk,” Caputo told the Irish Times.
“He’s got a couple of boxes to tick as far as to when he’s let off the leash.
“The biggest is the strength imbalance in his legs, his good leg and bad leg. He’s making real progress.
“I think he’s got his next benchmark examination next Monday and if he comes through that he’ll be in the frame.”