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Banned Iain Henderson's focus now switches to Nations Cup as Beirne and Roux fight for Six Nations spot

Duo sense chance as Ulsterman banned for rest of Six Nations

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Iain Henderson

Iain Henderson

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Possible combination: James Ryan and Quinn Roux could be Ireland’s second-row pairing against Italy

Possible combination: James Ryan and Quinn Roux could be Ireland’s second-row pairing against Italy

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Iain Henderson

Tadhg Beirne and Quinn Roux are battling it out to partner James Ryan in Ireland's second-row against Italy tomorrow week after Iain Henderson was suspended for Andy Farrell's side's rescheduled Six Nations games.

The second-row was sent off for a dangerous ruck clear-out in Ulster's win over Ospreys last Saturday, a decision that was upheld after a Guinness PRO14 disciplinary hearing chaired by Italian official Andrea Caraci.

He deemed the offence to be worthy of a six-week suspension, but reduced the length on the basis of Henderson's good behaviour, co-operation throughout the process and remorse. Henderson can appeal.

Though a bitter blow for the lock, his ban for the mid-range offence was reduced from six weeks to three, which allows him to be back in time for the new season's Autumn Nations Cup, which is due to start on November 13 at home to Wales.

The series includes clashes with England and Georgia and will conclude in early December.

Even so, this was the last thing the British and Irish Lions player needed as he had bounced back a month earlier than had been expected from hip surgery.

In total, Henderson had managed to play four games for Ulster since matches started to be played again and his fitness for next weekend's Six Nations opener with Italy would have been a considerable boost for Irish coach Andy Farrell, who called Ultan Dillane up to his squad yesterday after losing fellow lock Ryan Baird to an adductor muscle strain.

Ireland take on Italy in Dublin tomorrow week, before facing France in Paris on October 31.

Henderson joins Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne and Tadhg Furlong as members of the match day squad that lost to England in Ireland's last match that are ruled out of next week's game.

 

Although Dillane and Munster's Fineen Wycherley are training with the squad, it looks like a straight shoot-out between the ultra-mobile Beirne and set-piece specialist Roux for the start against the Italians.

Farrell is expected to name his team next Tuesday.

The Italians' preparations had been halted after Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney, as well as a member of staff, tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week, but they have been permitted to return to training today after a second round of testing produced all negative results.

A statement from the Italian federation read: "The Italian Rugby Federation informs that, following the Covid-19 positive case detected on Tuesday at the Men's National Team meeting, in retreat in Rome in preparation for the Guinness Six Nations recoveries, the entire Team Group has been subjected to a second molecular test.

"The outcome confirmed the negativity of all the players called up and the negative test of Stephen Varney, who will continue to observe the protocol established by the health authorities.

"A staff member tested positive for Covid-19 who, as early as the evening of Sunday, October 11, showing mild symptoms, immediately placed himself in fiduciary isolation in his room.

"The staff member, whose first swab gave negative results, is in good physical and psychological condition, continues to show mild symptoms and is constantly monitored by the medical staff."

And any lingering doubt over Exeter's Champions Cup final against Racing 92 has vanished after the French club returned no positive tests for coronavirus.

Nine Racing personnel were confirmed as having Covid-19 a fortnight ago, resulting in the postponement of their Top 14 clash with La Rochelle and all players and staff being placed into immediate home isolation as one of a number of emergency measures.

The Parisians relocated their training base to Corsica this week to prevent another outbreak and, after undergoing testing on Tuesday, they have been given the all-clear to face Exeter at Ashton Gate tomorrow.

Bristol and Toulon - the Challenge Cup finalists - also escaped any positives to ensure their match goes ahead tonight.

Meanwhile, South Africa could face the Lions next summer having not played since their World Cup final win over England after it emerged they are set to withdraw from this year's Rugby Championship.

The world champions were due to feature in the six-week tournament, which will be staged in Australia, but have decided to pull out due to a lack of preparation time and struggles over the release of European-based players.

Belfast Telegraph