Jonathan Sexton is now expected to be fit for Ireland's Six Nations clash with Italy after the IRFU said his injury does not need surgery.

Sexton left Twickenham on Saturday with his hand in a splint. This prompted fears that he could be facing an extended spell on the sidelines - with Racing Metro coach Laurent Labit even saying today that he could be unavailable for up to six weeks.

However the IRFU contradicted that this evening, saying they were confident he would be available for Ireland's next match in Dublin.

"If Johnny continues his current rate of improvement we would be confident that he will be available for selection against Italy", said the IRFU in a statement.

Sexton returned to France after Ireland's slender defeat to England, with Racing confirming he would not face Castres in Top 14 league action this weekend.

Ireland host Italy on Saturday, 8 March before closing their Six Nations campaign with a trip to France a week later.

The defeat at England on Saturday leaves the Six Nations title locked in a four-way tussle.

England, Wales and France can all still claim the crown, with Ireland also eyeing glory should they see off Italy in Dublin and the French in Paris.

Ireland boss Schmidt rates England as favourites for the title, though, despite the four contenders all having lost one clash in three rounds.

"I think England are going to be the toughest team to beat without a doubt," said Schmidt, warning Ireland to be extremely wary of Italy's threats.

"One of the problems for us is making sure that Italy is our full focus and that it stays that way over the next few days and next week.

"They have a very experienced, very powerful front-row and with Sergio Parisse at number eight he's one of the world's best anchoring that set-piece.

"I see their flanker Zanni has signed for Castres for next year, and they are very good players. Across the board I don't think we'll get anything easy against Italy."

Meanwhile Andrew Trimble is also expected to be fit for selection against Italy - despite taking a knock to his knee during training in Belfast today.

The IRFU said he was withdrawn from the session as a precaution, but said an Initial review revealed no immediate concerns.