Ireland have five players making their first RBS 6 Nations starts – Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Ian Keatley, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy – as they begin their title defence against Italy at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
2015 RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 7
ITALY v IRELAND, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, 3.30pm local time/2.30pm Irish time (live RTÉ Two/BBC One/RTÉ Radio 1/IRFU Live Blog)
Team News: 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.”
Meanwhile, Italy head coach Jacques Brunel has named an experienced team to take on defending champions Ireland. Number 8 Sergio Parisse leads a side boasting 661 Test caps – Ireland have 472 in their starting line-up.
Brunel’s selection shows only two changes, both injury-enforced, from their last outing – a 22-6 defeat to South Africa in November.
George Fabio Biagi comes into the second row alongside Josh Furno, replacing Quintin Geldenhuys, while Francesco Minto replaces Samuela Vunisa at openside flanker with Alessandro Zanni completing the back row.
The back-line is unchanged as Zebre’s Kiwi recruit Kelly Haimona makes his first Six Nations at half-back outside the experienced Edoardo Gori.
ITALY: Andrea Masi (Wasps); Leonardo Sarto (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Benetton Treviso), Luca Morisi (Benetton Treviso), Luke McLean (Sale Sharks); Kelly Haimona (Zebre), Edoardo Gori (Benetton Treviso); Matias Aguero (Zebre), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Leicester Tigers), Martin Castrogiovanni (Toulon), Josh Furno (Newcastle Falcons), George Biagi (Zebre), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso), Francesco Minto (Benetton Treviso), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) (capt).
Replacements: Andrea Manici (Zebre), Alberto de Marchi (Sale Sharks), Dario Chistolini (Zebre), Marco Fuser (Benetton Treviso), Marco Barbini (Benetton Treviso), Guglielmo Palazzani (Zebre), Tommaso Allan (Perpignan), Giovambattista Venditti (Zebre).
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht), Simon Zebo (Cork Con/Munster); Ian Keatley (Young Munster/Munster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster), Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster) (capt), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Leinster).
Replacements: Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), James Cronin (Dolphin/Munster), Martin Moore (Lansdowne/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster), Isaac Boss (Terenure/Leinster), Ian Madigan (Blackrock/Leinster), Felix Jones (Shannon/Munster).
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Television Match Official: Graham Hughes (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Italy to win: 4/1; Draw:25/1; Ireland to win: 1/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Paul O’Connell (Ireland) – “This game is a long time coming. We’d a great autumn and really made a lot of progress in that Australia game, in terms of taking a Southern Hemisphere scalp but a big part of it was how we finished the game as well. Defensively, we made some big steps in that game, so you’re always eager to get out, play again and improve.
“A bit part of what we do is try to get better week by week, game by game and championship by championship. After that Australia game, to have to wait two-and-a-half months for a game is frustrating. I think guys have looked forward to it. Obviously you have a change of team to what we had in autumn, but that’s exciting as well.
“It’s exciting to see guys like Ian Keatley, Jordi Murphy and obviously Sean O’Brien back, so we’re looking forward to getting out there and seeing how good we can be.”
Sergio Parisse (Italy) – “I really feel that if Ireland play at 60 or 70% against us they are not going to win: – they must play at 100% to beat us. I’m really confident in our team and our plan and that we’ll put everything into getting the win.
“The guys’ hunger is satisfying for me to see. You will see that all 23 of us are ready to spit blood to win this match.
“We know it’s not enough to play with passion and energy against Ireland. We have to show that we can play quality rugby as well. But this is a big chance for us against a really quality team and I’m really confident my team is ready to play a great match.”
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