Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has announced the team that will line out in their opening fixture of the 2015 RBS 6 Nations Championship against Italy in Rome on Saturday (kick-off 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish time).
Paul O’Connell, who lifted the RBS 6 Nations trophy last March, will captain the side on his 97th cap for his country and is partnered in the second row by Devin Toner.
The front row is made up of Jack McGrath, who is set for his first Championship start after five appearances as a replacement, hooker Rory Best and Mike Ross.
The fit-again Sean O’Brien returns to the back row for his first Test appearance since the November 2013 defeat to New Zealand. He joins Peter O’Mahony in the back row with Jordi Murphy making his first Six Nations start at number 8, filling in for Jamie Heaslip who is not being risked given his limited training time due to a shoulder injury.
Munster duo Conor Murray and Ian Keatley will form the half-back partnership. Keatley is another Six Nations newcomer just like Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne who pair up for only the second time in the centre.
The back-three sees Rob Kearney flanked by wingers Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, while the replacements bench is made up of Sean Cronin, James Cronin, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan and recent Ireland Wolfhounds captain Felix Jones.
Speaking about the selection of Keatley over Madigan at out-half, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt commented: “Ian Keatley has had that rhythm of playing 10 on a regular basis, whereas Ian Madigan has played a lot at 12. It was a reasonably tight decision, but we like the flexibility Ian Madigan gives us off the bench.
“It’s a difficult task being a ten at high European or Test level because you’ve got to be controlling the game, making decisions on the fly, and there’s a degree of competence that comes from experience of doing that.
“Ian Keatley has closed out some big games for Munster. His percentages since Christmas are very very strong and there is a combination that already exists there with Murray and Keatley.
“We had probably one of our longest ever selection meetings to come up with this team. There’s plenty of external pressure but we believe Ian Keatley can handle that.”
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Italy, 2015 RBS 6 Nations Championship, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Saturday, February 7, kick-off 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish time):
15. Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
14. Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
13. Jared Payne (Ulster)
12. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht)
11. Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster)
10. Ian Keatley (Young Munster/Munster)
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
1. Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
3. Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
4. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster)
5. Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster) (capt)
6. Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster)
7. Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
8. Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
16. Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
17. James Cronin (Dolphin/Munster)
18. Martin Moore (Lansdowne/Leinster)
19. Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
20. Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster)
21. Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
22. Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster)
23. Felix Jones (Shannon/Munster)