Jared Payne back in Ireland mix for Six Nations conclusion
Jared Payne has moved a step closer to a surprise RBS 6 Nations appearance after returning to Ireland's training squad.
The 31-year-old centre had been all-but ruled out of the tournament owing to a serious kidney injury suffered in November but fought back to action for Ulster last weekend.
Now head coach Joe Schmidt has named Payne in his squad to prepare for the final two Six Nations clashes, with Wales and England.
Payne's return could hand Ireland a significant boost in their bid to secure a winner-takes-all final weekend showdown with England in Dublin on March 18.
Ireland's backline defensive captain would doubtless shore up Schmidt's side's rearguard approach if recalled to the starting line-up to face Wales in Cardiff on Friday, March 10.
Ireland must now weigh up whether Payne will be ready to return in Cardiff after a three-month lay-off, or to keep faith with Garry Ringrose at outside centre.
"The guys that have battled for us in the last few weeks certainly have to be rewarded," said Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek, earlier this week.
"Jared has obviously got a huge amount of respect from the coaching staff and players.
"I know the players have a lot of respect for him as well so it's our duty to see how he's going."
Payne suffered his injury in Ireland's 27-24 win over Australia in Dublin on November 26.
Fit-again Leinster fly-half Joey Carbery returns to Ireland's squad ahead of Munster's Ian Keatley, with Ulster centre Luke Marshall also named in a 36-strong training squad.
Carbery had missed the first three rounds of Six Nations action with an ankle problem.
:: Ireland squad for final two Six Nations matches against Wales and England.
Forwards: R Best (Ulster, capt), J Conan, T Furlong, C Healy, J Heaslip (all Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), J McGrath, S O'Brien (both Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster), P O'Mahony (Munster), Q Roux (Connacht), D Ryan, J Ryan, N Scannell, CJ Stander (all Munster), D Toner, James Tracy (both Leinster).
Backs: J Carbery (Leinster), A Conway, K Earls (both Munster), C Gilroy (Ulster), R Henshaw (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), R Kearney (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), L Marshall (Ulster), L McGrath (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), T O'Halloran (Connacht), J Payne (Ulster), G Ringrose, J Sexton (both Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster), S Zebo (Munster).