Andy Farrell says he expects Ireland to have Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and Tadhg Furlong all back for the Round 4 Guinness Six Nations clash with Scotland at Murrayfield in just over two weeks.
Sexton will sit out Saturday's visit to Italy at Stadio Olimpico due to a groin injury suffered in the win against France in Round 2, but the captain travelled with the squad to Rome on Thursday, and has been heavily involved in preparing the group throughout the week at the high performance centre in Abbotstown.
When asked how confident he is, on a scale of 1-10, that the captain will return for the trip to Scotland on 12 March, Farrell was adamant in his response of '10'.
And he says Gibson-Park and Furlong will also be available for selection, with the pair yet to feature in the championship.
Furlong hasn't played since suffering an ankle injury in Leinster's win against Ulster in early December, picking up a calf issue in January which has delayed his return.
Gibson-Park, meanwhile, had been due to start Ireland's Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff, before a hamstring injury on the eve of the game.
While those three players are expected to return against Scotland, Farrell stressed that he isn't looking any further than Saturday's game against Italy, whom the coach says are the "most dangerous" Italian side he's seen from an attacking perspective.
"I thought England squeezed them really well a couple of weeks ago, but they fought hard, didn't they, in the second half and hung on in there and made it a tough old second-half for England. It shows the character that they've got.
"You're talking about all those individuals and the flair et cetera that they've got, but that's all because of the systems that Kieran's [Kieran Crowley, Italy head coach] put in there. The systems, everyone's accountable on attack.
"It reminds me a little bit of how Japan play where everyone is on their feet and everyone's got a responsibility. It's a tough enough place to defend against isn't it, when you've got 15 guys coming at you the whole time."
Farrell (above) has made six changes to his side from the team that started against France earlier this month, including a new half-back partnership of Ross Byrne and Craig Casey.
The pair impressed off the bench as a combination in the opening wins against Wales and France when Ireland were closing out wins, and Farrell says it's important for them to experience the different challenge of putting Ireland on course for a win, rather than steering them home.
"We wouldn't throw anyone in there that we didn’t think was ready," he added.
"So it’s good for us, like I keep saying, when we’ve had all sorts of injuries in the past, it’s good for us to keep developing the squad and we get another opportunity to do that this week.
"I expect them to bring to the start of the match - like we've started over the last however many games - some clarity of what it is we're going after and then they're in charge of putting the team around the field to make us be in the right decisions to be able to do that.
"But what's been impressive for them coming off the bench is they've watched the game, they've got a feel for the game and they understand how to control what they were trying to achieve.
"A little bit of a different dynamic for them, starting the game, but we expect the control that they've had. It was the right thing for the right moment and we expect that to be the same from the start of the game.
"We want to obviously take our game to Italy and they'll be at the forefront of that."
For Casey (above), it's just a second Test start, with far higher stakes than his only previous appearance from the off - a friendly win against the USA in July 2021.
And Farrell says he's been impressed with how the Munster scrum-half has refined his game this season.
"He's always got energy, but it's a lot more than that. He's worked extremely hard on playing quick, being dynamic but being calm enough to make the right decisions as he's getting there.
"I suppose as a youngster, you want to show your energy and how fit and skilful [you are], because his pass has always been fantastic, you know, but his decision making in and around not losing the speed of the game is a tricky one because you've got to be calm in your mind and still keep the speed in the feet.
"To manage the two is a tricky one and he's doing very well in that regard."
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