Ireland's Jared Payne misses Italy clash - and could be out of France match too
Jared Payne's foot injury could end up laying him low for Ireland's crucial World Cup clashes against Italy and France.
The Ulster centre is still suffering bruising and inflammation to his foot and has failed to recover in time to face Italy at London's Olympic Stadium on Sunday.
Full-back Rob Kearney is expected to be fit to face France on Sunday week - but has not beaten his gluteal strain quickly enough for the Italy clash.
Simon Zebo will start against Italy with Keith Earls at outside centre, where victory will secure Joe Schmidt's side qualification for the quarter-finals.
"Jared's progressing really well; his foot was scanned as a precaution to make sure there was nothing structurally awry," said head coach Schmidt.
"He's got bruising, with inflammation and discomfort but that's getting better by the day. He can walk and jog freely now.
"It's just the frustration that he hasn't been able to train fully.
"We'd be quietly confident at the moment that he will be ready for France.
"We'd expect he'd be able to train with the team on Wednesday.
"Rob's probably fit to play. But he wasn't fit to play at the start of the week.
"He trained pretty much fully today, so there are no real doubts on him for next week."
Ireland will take on France in Cardiff on Sunday, October 11, one week after their Italy encounter.
The winners of that Millennium Stadium battle are most likely to top Pool D and face an anticipated quarter-final with Argentina.
Payne's readiness to face France could now hinge on Ireland's training session on Wednesday next week.
Schmidt expects the Ulster star to be ready for that session and will need him to take a full part to then warrant selection for Les Bleus.
"One of the difficulties is trying to make an assessment when you're waiting for a soft tissue injury to heal and trying to get a bit of clarity for selection," said Schmidt of the trials of gauging players' fitness.
"I think Jared's importance would be reflected by his combination with Robbie Henshaw when he has played.
"They made a really good combination during the Six Nations.
"Jared's really disappointed not to be playing this weekend, because he misses an opportunity and offers another opportunity to someone in good form.
"We're just trying to get him right as soon as we possibly can."
Munster flyer Earls has battled back from a 29-month Test absence to become an integral part of Ireland's World Cup campaign, scoring two tries in last weekend's 44-10 victory over Romania at Wembley.
The 28-year-old has slotted in from the wing to the outside centre berth vacated by the injured Payne, with boss Schmidt delighted with his form and overall threat.
Schmidt also believes Earls' midfield presence affords the opportunity to add more power out wide, with the strength of Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe on the flanks.
"We just felt Keith had shown a real sharpness at centre in the pre-season match in Wales," said Schmidt.
"And it was a way to have Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe on the pitch at the same time. Those three players can all link up and contribute.
"It makes for a fairly attacking minded group but at the same time Keith made 13 from 13 tackles in the pre-season game, defensively he's been sound for us.
"It's nice to finally work with Keith; I certainly gave it a lot of shots.
"He was pretty keen to get started as well a number of times but every time he just picked up an injury before the bracket of games we were about to enter into.
"It's added to the real contest between those back-three and middle-three players and I think between him and Luke Fitzgerald who are both very adequate no matter what position they play through those bigger numbers in the team, it does just give us a little bit of flexibility in how we mix and match those players.
"Keith has made those decisions very difficult in not matching him in because he's been in really good form."