Bundee Aki has been released from the Ireland camp to start for Connacht in Friday’s Guinness PRO14 match away to Benetton Rugby (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time).
Aki started last week’s bonus point victory over Cardiff Blues and will again play tomorrow at Stadio di Monigo in a boost to Andy Friend’s side.
Oisin Dowling, the 23-year-old lock, has also been handed his first start for the province, having featured off the bench in the last two games.
Dowling joins Gavin Thornbury in the second row, with Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham completing the tight five for the Italy trip.
The back row is unchanged from the Cardiff game last time out, so Gorey man Paul Boyle continues at number 8 alongside Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler.
There is a freshened-up half-back pairing in Conor Fitzgerald and Ireland international Kiernan Marmion, while Tom Daly combines with Aki in the centre once again.
Finally, Tiernan O’Halloran is handed his first start in nearly two months after recovering from injury. He anchors a back-three that has Alex Wootton, the PRO14’s leading try scorer this season with nine tries, and Peter Sullivan out wide.
There is an experienced look to the westerners’ bench with centurions Denis Buckley, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty all included as back-up.
Connacht head coach Friend says they are keen to give game-time to some players without disrupting the flow of what have been some impressive team performances.
“This is a big day for Oisin getting his first start, and with Bundee released from Ireland duty and the likes of Tiernan and Kieran coming into the team also, they bring a lot of experience with them,” said Friend.
“Overall we’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going. I said at the start of this block of games that we realistically need five wins from five to have a chance of finishing top of Conference B, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before.
“Italy is always a tough place to get a win, and we’ve seen from Benetton’s last few performances that they’re getting closer to that first victory this season. We’ll have to be at our best to make sure that doesn’t come against us.”
CONNACHT (v Benetton Rugby): Tiernan O’Halloran; Peter Sullivan, Tom Daly, Bundee Aki, Alex Wootton; Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Oisin Dowling, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (capt), Paul Boyle.
Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Sean Masterson, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, John Porch.