Italy v Ireland: Johnny Sexton returns as Andy Farrell makes seven changes
Head coach says he will support his captain whose ‘appetite is as strong as ever’
Six Nations: Italy v Ireland
Kick-off: 2.15pm, Saturday. Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 1.45pm. On TV: Live on Virgin Media One and ITV.
Ireland coach Andy Farrell continues to support Johnny Sexton after the 35-year-old suggested this week that he might not make it to the World Cup in 2023.
Sexton, who is about to sign a one year contract extension, quickly called it a “throwaway” remark but the Irish captain did mention his plans for a post playing career plan that will not include the media or coaching.
“There is no difficulty from my point of view,” said Farrell after making seven changes to the team to face Italy in Rome this Saturday. “And I am sure there is no difficulty from Johnny’s point of view as well. Conversations are going on in the background and both sides are happy with those conversations.
“It is what it is. Johnny keeps being his brightly self during the week. He has certainly been at the forefront of what has been a great week so far.”
Farrell was asked if he was ‘desperate’ for Sexton to stay on until 2023.
“Desperate? As long as Johnny keeps on giving to Irish rugby, keeps putting his foot forward, and wanting to be in the equation – he feels good at this moment in time. His appetite is as strong as ever. He is certainly one of those guys that makes the group feel right. As long as that appetite stays, we will keep moving in the right direction.”
Billy Burns provides outhalf cover ahead of Ross Byrne just as Joey Carbery returns to the Munster replacements in Cardiff tomorrow night, after 13 months out with an ankle injury.
Conor Murray’s hamstring ruled him out of contention early in the week so Jamison Gibson-Park will partner Sexton at halfback with Craig Casey set to earn his first cap at Stadio Olimpico.
“You cannot promise anything, certainly in international sport, but if [CASEY]gets his chance he will certainly be ready.”
A fully stocked Leinster backline means Keith Earls drops to the bench alongside Rob Herring, Cian Healy and Andrew Porter, as Jordan Larmour starts on the right wing and there is a brand new frontrow of David Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong.
Leinster lock Ryan Baird is also due to make his debut while Jack Conan returns to the match day squad for the first time since the 2019 World Cup. Will Connors is the latest option at openside flanker with Tadhg Beirne moving from second row to blindside. Peter O’Mahony (suspended) and Caelan Doris (concussion) are unavailable while Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock are dropped.
“Tadhg adds on both sides of the ball but set piece wise, along with James Ryan and Iain Henderson, the three of them have been pretty strong in the lineout.”
Despite Italy being on course to lose a 30th straight Six Nations match, Farrell believes they deserve their automatic place in the tournament.
“I certainly feel they are good enough to stay in the competition long term because I can see the progress that Franco [Smith] is making with them. They are heading in the right direction. Different combinations take time to gel.”
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; David Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan; Tadhg Beirne, Will Connors, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Billy Burns, Keith Earls.