The Ireland coaching staff have named the team to face Italy at the Olympic Stadium in London on Sunday. Robbie Henshaw will make his Rugby World Cup debut alongside Keith Earls in the centre.
There are 11 changes in personnel to the side that defeated Romania 44-10, with Paul O’Connell returning to captain his country for the 27th time. He reforms his second row partnership with Iain Henderson from the Canada game.
Number 8 Jamie Heaslip is joined in the back row by Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, who wins his 40th cap at openside, while Mike Ross comes back in at tighthead prop alongside Rory Best and Jack McGrath in the front row.
Half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray will marshal a back-line that is missing the sidelined Rob Kearney (mild glute strain) and Jared Payne (bruised foot). A fully-fit Robbie Henshaw will make his RWC debut at the age of 22, combining with Keith Earls in a new-look centre pairing.
Earls, who scored a brace of tries from the wing against Romania, last donned the number 13 jersey in Ireland’s warm-up victory away to Wales in August. He celebrates his 28th birthday today.
Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney will fill the wing berths with Simon Zebo completing the back-three. It will be the Corkman’s fourth start at full-back since mid-August.
Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan, Cian Healy, Nathan White, Devin Toner and Chris Henry – all starters against Romania – drop back to a replacements bench that also includes hooker Sean Cronin and versatile back Luke Fitzgerald.
Commenting on Earls’ move to outside centre, head coach Joe Schmidt said: “I think we had a number of in-form people and we had to put someone at centre. Darren Cave was in form as well, so that certainly was part of the discussion.
“We just felt that Keith, in the pre-season match (against Wales), had shown a real sharpness at centre, and it was a way to have Tommy and Dave Kearney on the pitch at the same time. I think those three players can all link up and contribute.
“It makes for a fairly attack-minded group and at the same time, Keith made 13 out of 14 tackles in the pre-season game, so defensively he has been very, very sound for us. There’s elements of his game that continue to grow.”
Giving an injury update on Payne and Kearney, he added: “Jared is progressing really well. There was a scan as a precaution to make sure there was nothing structural awry. He’s got bruising and that’s it. It’s just inflammation and discomfort that is getting better by the day. He’s able to walk around freely now on it and jog around.
“We’d be quietly confident at the moment (that he will be fit for France). We’d be expecting that he’d be able to train at least individually on Tuesday and he’d be able to train with the team on Wednesday.
“Rob’s probably fit to play but he wasn’t fit to play at the start of the week. He trained pretty much fully today, so there’s no real doubts for him next week.”
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Italy, 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool D, Olympic Stadium, London, Sunday, October 4, kick-off 4.45pm):
15. Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster)
14. Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
13. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
12. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht)
11. Dave Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster)
10. Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
1. Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
3. Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
5. Paul O’Connell (Young Munster) (capt)
6. Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster)
7. Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Dublin University/Leinster)
16. Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
17. Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
18. Nathan White (Connacht)
19. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster)
20. Chris Henry (Malone/Ulster)
21. Eoin Reddan (Old Crescent/Leinster)
22. Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster)
23. Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College/Leinster)