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Stander: Irish have quality to cope with injury woe

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The back-row is always considered to be an area of considerable depth for Ireland, but that is now being tested by a series of injuries that will concern Joe Schmidt.

The Ireland coach will have all-too-fresh memories of the 2015 World Cup when his stocks were diminished below the front-line, and when Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien were ruled out of the quarter-final, the team were left short.

The combination of Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip didn't have their best day, and when Schmidt went to his bench it was up to Rhys Ruddock - just back from an arm injury and short of match fitness - who also found the going tough.

Yesterday's news that Josh van der Flier is out for the season is a blow, and it is realistic to think that Ireland are one more injury away from being in a problem area.

This week against Italy looks straightforward with Dan Leavy coming in at openside and either Murphy or Jack Conan coming onto the bench.

Jack O'Donoghue has been drafted into the squad, while Ulsterman Iain Henderson has the capacity to switch to the blindside if needed.

There are options, but the depth chart is being tested. Players of the calibre and experience of O'Brien, Heaslip, Tommy O'Donnell and Ruddock are already sidelined, with only O'Brien likely to return during the Championship.

The back-row of O'Mahony, Leavy and CJ Stander, which played together for much of the win over France last Saturday, looks well-balanced and strong.

O'Mahony is the senior man, while Leavy looks very comfortable at the level. Stander would have far more than 20 caps if he had not had to wait so long for his first.

And the South African-born No.8 is unconcerned by the injury toll in his position.

"It's a place where there's always a lot of talent, so I think there are a lot of players in that position that can pick up," Stander said. "The group we have now is experienced. Some of them are young, but some of them are playing very well for their clubs, and when they get the jersey for Ireland they are playing exceptionally.

"Josh was playing an exceptional game. He started well, he had a lot of energy and made a lot of tackles.

"Unfortunately he went off with his knee, but I think Dan came in and just took over from Josh and made a few big hits and big carries and he put his hand up for sure. It just shows the depth we have there in the back-row."

Although he is a big fan of Van der Flier, Stander has been impressed by what Leavy has brought to the party.

"Josh is a tough player, a physical player, he always pitches up - not just in games but in training. He lifts the energy of the whole squad and he's been around the players since coming in as a young fella and impressed all of us," he said.

"At this level now, he's playing well week in, week out, especially in the back-row, he's going to be a big loss. There are a lot of guys pushing for a jersey there, he's going to be missed. Hopefully he gets sorted quite quickly.

"Dan's another player that's driven and he has a tough way that he plays, he knows what he wants in the game and what he has to go out and do.

"He's physical, he's very strong - very strong over the ball - and I think he's one of those back-rows that can fit in anywhere and do any job.

"He's quick, he brings a lot of energy and is someone great to have alongside you, and also to push you in the jersey.

"I think he had an exceptional game coming on and he fit in like a glove.

"Sometimes it's tough to come into a game but he just fit in, brought a lot of energy and helped change the game.

"His confidence gives him a push, and the way he works on and off the pitch, he trains hard and if you train well during the week, the game is going to fit you and he does that all week to make sure the game is going to be easy."

While he feels for Van der Flier, Leavy himself is hoping he can take advantage with his first Six Nations start.

"I've been in Josh's position before, getting injured in games like that, and it is horrible," he said. "My best wishes go to him but personally it's a bit of an opportunity for me to kick on and make a claim for the jersey myself.

"I thought I slotted in pretty seamlessly, knew my role and everything very well. I was just dying for an opportunity."

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