Andy Farrell says Tadhg Furlong came just short of being named in the Ireland team for Saturday's Guinness Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff.
The Leinster tighthead has been sidelined with a calf injury since early December, and while he did train this week with the squad at their Quinta do Lago base in Portugal, the game at the Principality Stadium has just come too soon for him.
However, the Ireland head coach says he's confident Furlong will be fit for the 11 February visit of France to the Aviva Stadium.
"At this stage, yeah, he's had a good few sessions under his belt now," Farrell said.
"He’s got a bit more progress to go but we’ll continue that over the coming days and see how we roll into the beginning of next week.
"He's not quite ready. In fact, he's progressing pretty well but he's not quite there yet. He could possibly be there in the next few days or week or whatever."
With Furlong absent, Connacht's Finlay Bealham (above) will win his 28th cap, with Tom O'Toole drafted onto the bench.
Bealham has emerged as the regular backup for Furlong in the past two seasons, playing in all five games of last season's tournament, and featuring in both of Ireland's Test wins against New Zealand last summer.
The 31-year-old earned huge credit following Ireland's win against South Africa in November, replacing the injured Furlong at half time, and producing one of his best Irish performances as they ground out a 19-16 win against the world champions.
"We just think that Finlay deserves it as well. He's playing some outstanding rugby at this moment in time. The last game he played, he scored a hat-trick, he's scrummaging very well, so he deserves a start.
"Tadhg will keep working away to hopefully be fit for the French game."
Saturday's game will be a first Six Nations start for Bealham, and just his fourth time ever starting a game for Ireland, the last of which came in July 2021 against Japan.
However, the Australia native has been a regular presence in matchday squads, playing nine of the last 11 games for Ireland.
And Farrell says he's become a trusted member of the group.
"He's been playing good rugby for a good while now, but coming back from the Autumn, or any camp he's been in with us, he's had that trust.
"He's a massive personality within our squad, he's very popular, but coming out of the Autumn and how that translates, going back to Connacht and his performances since then has been top drawer."
Furlong's injury overshadowed the news that Farrell was showing faith in Stuart McCloskey (added), starting him ahead of Bundee Aki following the Ulsterman's impressive Autumn Nations Series.
And Farrell says the Bangor man deserves his shot in the Six Nations.
"I thought he handled himself pretty well. He has been desperate enough to get the opportunities and do well. I think the good thing for us is that there's more in him at this level. We're excited to see that.
"Bundee [Aki] will make the dressing room feel right, 100% him being there on the bench, and he did that in the Autumn, came off the bench and brought a great deal of power and experience onto the field. We're expecting more of the same in that regard."
It was also confirmed that the roof in the Principality Stadium will be closed for the 2.15pm kickoff on Saturday, after Ireland agreed with the request of Wales.
The last two Six Nations meetings between the sides were played with the retractable roof open, with the 2021 game played in open-air settings due to Covid-19 regulations.
And Farrell says he was eager to close the roof on the ground to challenge his side in a raucous Cardiff atmosphere, even if it makes the game tougher.
"We've been there before when it's closed and there's no atmosphere like it. It's fantastic. It can only be good for us. We have to agree with the roof being closed. We wanted it closed as well to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey.
"It doesn't really get any tougher than Wales first up. Everyone has spoke over the last two weeks about the record. My record's not great there either. Thinking back, I lost there for Saracens and I actually played a rugby league game there and lost there as well.
"So we know that it's a really tough place to go, but that's where we want to be. We want to challenge ourselves. What I would say is that we judge ourselves on our preparation and our preparation has been top-drawer. It's as good as I've seen it in regards to getting ready for any type of competition. Hopefully, that can continue over the next couple of days preparation-wise and can translate into a performance," he added.
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