O’Brien handed Ireland start

Published: Thursday 5th February 2015 by The News Editor

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Sean O’Brien will start Ireland’s RBS 6 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.

Vice-captain Heaslip 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 the 30-cap loose forward can reignite his 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.

Schmidt revealed experienced back-rower Heaslip regained full fitness on Thursday, but Ireland’s coaches chose not to risk him against the Italians.

Ireland’s head coach confirmed Heaslip’s absence led to the decision to hand O’Brien a start rather than a seat on the bench.

“Jamie trained fully today, if that had been the case on Tuesday the decision might have been different,” said Schmidt.

“He’s 100 per cent fit now, he will train fully next week and that will allow him to focus on the France game.

“His powers of recuperation are second to none, but we just decided to be conservative with it.

“What we’re missing is a lot of experience, but Peter O’Mahony has that, he’s a leader of his provincial team and of our group.

“Jordi (Murphy) has had a really solid season since Christmas.

“We certainly didn’t necessarily see Sean (O’Brien) starting this week but we felt he did well in the Wolfhounds game.

“There’s always a degree of risk with players coming off the bench after returning from injury.

“If Sean can give us a great 50 to 60 minutes I think that will help put us into the game hopefully.

“Jordi has played a lot at number eight.

“It’s not something he’s played massively recently, but he has covered for Jamie in recent years until Jack Conan has emerged.

“I think Jordi is a pretty good fit in the circumstances.”

Schmidt backed experienced tighthead Ross to contain Italy’s renowned front-row in the scrum despite losing his club place to Moore at Leinster in recent weeks.

The Kiwi coach said Ross will be unfazed by any lack of action, especially after shaking off that groin issue for the autumn Tests.

“There was a degree of confidence to select him this time because he came in off minimal game time in November and did a job,” said Schmidt.

“He’s in far better condition than that now so we feel he can do a job.

“I think our scrum was a real strong point for us in the last Six Nations.

“The personnel haven’t changed too much, and Mike did really well last week against Matt Mullan for the Wolfhounds.

“So I think Mike’s in a pretty good place to be honest.”

Published: Thursday 5th February 2015 by The News Editor

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