Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton and vice-captain James Ryan are on track to feature in Sunday’s “must-win” Guinness Six Nations clash with France.Fly-half Sexton and lock Ryan must each undergo phased return-to-play protocols having suffered head knocks during the weekend loss to Wales.
Defence coach Simon Easterby says Ireland are preparing on the basis the influential pair can be involved in Dublin this weekend, although contingency plans have been put in place.Ireland defence coach Simon Easterby, pictured, is hopeful Johnny Sexton and James Ryan will be available to face France (Donall Farmer/PA)“As far as we are aware, that is exactly what we are planning (to have both players available),” said Easterby.“Our primary focus is their health and safety, first and foremost.“If a player – which may well be the case at some stage this week – feels like they can’t complete the (protocol) stage they’re in, then they obviously have to drop back a stage and that compromises their availability.“We’re aware of that and we have plans in place to potentially have to deal with that, if they come along.Ireland were beaten by Wales on Sunday after playing with 14 men for 66 minutes (David Davies/PA)“But, at the moment, we’re planning they get through each stage each day and they get that one step further to making themselves available by the weekend.”Ireland endured a nightmare start to the tournament after the 14th-minute dismissal of flanker Peter O’Mahony contributed heavily to Sunday’s narrow 21-16 loss in Cardiff.That frustrating defeat has heaped pressure on the weekend visit of an exciting, in-form Les Bleus side, who thumped Italy 50-10 on Saturday.Easterby concedes Andy Farrell’s men cannot afford another setback if they are to retain hopes of winning the title.Ready to do it all again next weekend? 🤪#GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/x1jmb3XI8Q— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 7, 2021Asked if the France match was effectively a cup final, he replied: “I think that’s a good way of putting it.“We obviously didn’t get the start we would have hoped for and it puts us in a more difficult position than we think we should have been.“But there is still a massive opportunity at the weekend, the French coming to town. An opportunity to hopefully get parity in terms of numbers on the pitch and have the opportunity to showcase what we feel like we’re building.“For us to stay alive in the competition, it’s a must-win.”Back-row forward Jack Conan has not played for Ireland since victory over Scotland at the 2019 World Cup (Adam Davy/PA)Following O’Mahony’s red card for a reckless hit on Wales prop Tomas Francis, head coach Farrell has bolstered his back-row options by adding Leinster forward Jack Conan to his squad.The 28-year-old has earned 17 Test caps but not played for his country since the 2019 World Cup.While question marks hang over Sexton’s weekend availability, Farrell has resisted the temptation to increase competition for the number 10 jersey.Easterby insists the management team are content to have Billy Burns and Ross Byrne as the only deputies, while reiterating the optimism regarding the fitness of their captain.Billy Burns, pictured, right, and Ross Byrne would be the options to replace Johnny Sexton (David Davies/PA)“Billy and Ross have been with us for the last couple of weeks. We’re really comfortable with where they are at and what they can offer the team,” he said.“I think it’s credit to them the hard work that they are putting in when they’re not necessarily getting the minutes with Johnny being skipper.“It certainly wasn’t a thought of ours (to add further options), partly due to the fact we believe Johnny will get through those protocols, but also we’re confident and backing those guys that are in the system already.”Uncapped back row Gavin Coombes has been released from the national team camp to return to training with Munster.