Ireland coach Joe Schmidt says returning flanker Sean O’Brien is on track to feature in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
The Leinster loose forward – who has not played a Test since November 2013 – is set to make his comeback from 14 months on the sidelines for the Irish Wolfhounds against England Saxons on Friday.
Leinster believe the 27-year-old could feature in their Pro12 clash against the Dragons on February 15, so he may be in line to feature against England in Dublin on March 1.
“Sean trained fully on Tuesday,” said Schmidt, as Ireland prepare to open their title defence in Rome next week.
“So we’d be hopeful that he’d be involved in the first half of the Six Nations.”
Schmidt also believes loosehead prop Cian Healy, who has been battling hamstring problems since September, could feature during the tournament.
“We’re still hopeful that Cian may have an involvement as well,” said Schmidt.
“Cian looks in great shape; he’s just got to hit a few markers to finish off his full recovery.
“Because one thing we don’t want to do is to have someone reinjure themselves and therefore put themselves out for an extended period of time.
“So we’re very much Six Nations-focused but it’s a massive year, and what we can’t afford to do is worsen a situation for a player with an injury.”
In more good news for the defending champions, Schmidt confirmed that Munster scrum-half Conor Murray is likely to have recovered from a neck injury in time to face Italy.
“Conor is feeling really good, we’re quietly confident,” said Schmidt.
“He’s got a few more things to tick off and he will be scanned again by the end of the week.
“And by Monday we’d like to have a clear picture so we can have uninterrupted preparation for Italy, but at the moment we’re hopeful he’ll be okay.
“If you get bruising, bruising causes swelling, and swelling causes discomfort. That’s a layman’s view of what Conor has got presently, so we’re hopeful that will dissipate, and has dissipated over a period of time since it first happened.”