Sean O’Brien will start Ireland’s Six Nations opener in Rome just eight days after his first action in five months.
The combative British and Irish Lions flanker will play his first Test since November 2013 against Italy on Saturday, to offset the absence of Jamie Heaslip. The Leinster No.8 misses out through shoulder trouble, so O’Brien’s experience will ease the pressure on four-cap number eight Jordi Murphy – a Six Nations debutant.
Munster’s Ian Keatley has held off the challenge of Ian Madigan to start at fly-half, the 27-year-old taking his Six Nations bow in what will be his fourth cap.
Leinster flanker O’Brien featured in Ireland Wolfhounds’ 18-9 defeat to England Saxons in Cork on January 30, ending 14 months battling two shoulder reconstructions. Now he can reignite a Test career that has stalled since he first damaged his shoulder in Ireland’s 24-22 New Zealand defeat in the autumn of 2013.
Leinster’s hugely talented back-rower Murphy slots in for Heaslip, with Ireland keen not to risk one of their most experienced stars as he recovers from a shoulder niggle. Ulster’s Jared Payne partners Connacht battering ram Robbie Henshaw in the centres, with Ireland boss Joe Schmidt confirming the duo as his first-choice midfield pairing for the first time.
Payne and Henshaw worked in tandem in the autumn, but Gordon D’Arcy’s injury absence allowed Ireland to defer the decision on the long-term replacement for the now-retired Brian O’Driscoll.
Henshaw has long been pencilled in as record caps holder O’Driscoll’s successor, but could now ultimately end up replacing D’Arcy in Schmidt’s greater scheme.
New Zealand-born Payne has featured at full-back most regularly for Ulster this term, but will pick up where he left off from Ireland’s autumn at outside centre.
Veteran midfielder D’Arcy’s omission from the entire match squad indicates the size of the task facing the 34-year-old to force his way back into contention.
Stalwart front-rower Mike Ross starts at tighthead despite lagging behind Marty Moore in Leinster’s pecking order in recent weeks. The 35-year-old remains Ireland’s only ever-present selection under Kiwi boss Schmidt.
Ross fended off a month of groin trouble to feature in all three autumn Tests, and continues to remain one of Schmidt’s most trusted lieutenants.
R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe, J Payne (both Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S Zebo, I Keatley, C Murray (all Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross, D Toner (both Leinster), P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony (both Munster), S O’Brien, J Murphy (both Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), T O’Donnell (Munster), I Boss, I Madigan (both Leinster), F Jones (Munster).
Read more at ESPN