British & Irish Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have been named in Ireland’s squad for the 2006 Six Nations after making encouraging progress on their return from injury.
Skipper O’Driscoll missed the autumn internationals after undergoing surgery on the shoulder damaged during the first Test of the Lions’ tour to New Zealand.
O’Connell also sat out the November series after sustaining a hand injury while on Celtic League duty for Munster against Llanelli in September.
The Lions duo have both made their comebacks in recent weeks, scoring a brace of tries for their respective provinces in the weekend’s round of European Cup matches.
Leinster winger Denis Hickie is also included in the 35-strong squad named by coach Eddie O’Sullivan after missing the defeats by New Zealand and Australia and victory over Romania with a dislocated fibula.
O’Sullivan said: "Paul and Brian have had tough seasons so far in terms of injuries but their form has been excellent since their return.
"Along with the return of Denis Hickie, it gives the squad a little bit more experience then we had in November.
"Keeping in mind that we have the final round of the European Cup this weekend, hopefully the squad will be fit and well and on the field next Monday morning."
Four uncapped players feature in the squad – Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan.
The latter has replaced Ulster scrum-half Kieron Campbell, while veteran forwards Reggie Corrigan and Anthony Foley are back despite not playing in any of the November Tests.
Once again O’Sullivan has overlooked Bob Casey of London Irish and Toulouse’s Trevor Brennan.
David Wallace has been rewarded for his fine form with a call-up and the Munster flanker is sure to push incumbent Johnny O’Connor hard for the openside duties.
The only players unavailable because of injury are Alan Quinlan and Frankie Sheahan – but with neither likely to have featured in the starting line-up, Ireland will enter the Six Nations in rude health.
"As well as the return of the more senior players, we still have a good blend of youth with Andrew Trimble, Rory Best, Neil Best and Jerry Flannery all coming into the Six Nations with a little bit more experience," said O’Sullivan.
"Eoin and Shane have been in good form for their clubs, so it will be good to see how they go with the squad next week.
"Jeremy Staunton and John Kelly have also been playing well and deserve their call-up."
Ireland squad for 2006 Six Nations:
Backs – T Bowe (Ulster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), G Dempsey (Leinster), G Easterby (Leinster), D Hickie (Leinster), S Horgan (Leinster), D Humphreys (Ulster), R Kearney (Leinster), J Kelly (Munster), G Murphy (Leicester), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps), J Staunton (Wasps), P Stringer (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster)
Forwards – N Best (Ulster), S Best (Ulster), R Best (Ulster), S Byrne (Saracens), R Corrigan (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli), A Foley (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster), M Horan (Munster), S Jennings (Leicester), D Leamy (Munster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster), J O’Connor (Wasps), M O’Driscoll (Munster), M O’Kelly (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster)