Ulster prop Declan Fitzpatrick is poised to make a sensational debut for Ireland in the first test against the world champions New Zealand this weekend.
The Irish had mixed injury news in the front row yesterday with loosehead prop, Cian Healy fit to go, but tighthead and fellow Leinster prop, Mike Ross remaining a serious doubt.
Leinster prop Ross suffered a slight hamstring tear in the RaboDirect PRO12 final against the Ospreys on May 27, limping out of the game after just 16 minutes.
Ireland team manager Michael Kearney revealed Ross was facing an uphill battle to be fit in time to face the All Blacks at Eden Park, but Healy is ready and Sean O’Brien, the team’s other injury concern, was nearing full fitness.
“Mike Ross is rehabbing from his hamstring tear. It is going well but he hasn’t trained fully and remains in some doubt ahead of the weekend,” Kearney said.
“Cian trained fully today and is good to go. Sean O’Brien is continuing to rehabilitate well and he accelerated his rehab this morning. We are hopeful that he will be available for selection at the weekend.”
With Tom Court missing the tour due to a thumb injury, it is almost certain that Ulster tighthead, Ireland ‘A’ capped Fitzpatrick will come into the starting line-up to be named this afternoon.
The tight head prop had an injury plagued season and has only played 182 minutes of rugby for Ulster since November and was given an hour in the Ireland shirt in last week’s friendly defeat against the Barbarians in Gloucester.
Fitzpatrick will make his test debut as first choice tight Ross is ruled out due to injury, the only other option at tight head is Connacht’s Ronan Loughney.
Fitzpatrick played against the All Blacks in the 2004 U21 World Cup final but his career has been hampered by injury.
A neck injury suffered against Glasgow looked like ending his season, Fitzpatrick had whiplash and spent five months on the side lines.
John Afoa’s ban saw Fitzpatrick return to the Ulster starting line-up against Leinster in the PRO12 League and when the Dungannon front row came through that he was pitched into the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh and was an integral part of helping Ulster reach the Twickenham showdown against Leinster.
Ireland hooker Rory Best is backing Fitzpatrick to give a good account of himself as he comes up against one of the top loose heads in world rugby Tony Woodcock.
“I’ve played with Deccy in U21 games, AIL games and we came into the Ulster senior squad together and I have no doubt he will repaid that faith on Saturday tenfold.
“He is very honest, he is very hard working but more than that he is a very good player.”
Meanwhile, Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss believes New Zealand will be determined to re-establish Eden Park as a home fortress in their first run-out since they won the World Cup.
He said: “From the squad they picked it is going to be a fantastic series.
“We’re playing the world champions – the best in the world bar none. We expect them to throw everything at us.
“They have a proud history at Eden Park. Taking on the All Blacks at any time is a tough prospect.
“I know that they are very proud at what they have achieved in Eden Park.
“I know Australia have spoken up in recent times about going there and breaking that there but (New Zealand) just keep turning up at that ground and nailing it.”
Of the 30-man All Blacks squad for the three-Test series, Kiss highlighted the talents of Chiefs number seven Sam Cane and Hurricanes winger Julien Savea.
“They are hugely physical and from watching the Super Rugby over here you can see that they throw [the ball] around so it will be an open affair,” he said.