New Ireland frontrow among expected changes for Italy trip

Ryan Baird and Craig Casey in line to make their Test debuts off the bench

Andy Farrell is expected to ring the changes when the Irish side to face Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday (kick-off 2.15pm Irish time) is announced on Thursday, with the frontrow set to be entirely revamped.

All told there could be six or seven changes compared to the starting XV for the 15-13 defeat by France, with a couple more on the bench, where all the indications are both Ryan Baird and Craig Casey could make their Test debuts. There might have been a further change too had Conor Murray not been ruled out again through injury.

David Kilcoyne, who also missed that match, is set to start at loosehead, with Rónan Kelleher in line to be promoted after his try-scoring cameo against Les Bleus, as is Tadhg Furlong.

The Irish coaches must be keen to have Furlong back in the starting line-up not only for his powerful scrummaging but, as he reminded us all against France, his deft handling skills at first receiver.

Kilcoyne has won 32 of his 40 caps as a replacement and his last Test start was the World Cup pool win over Russia. His only previous Six Nations start was this week two years ago, in the 26-16 win over the Azzurri in Rome.

Hence Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Andrew Porter, would presumably be switched to the bench en bloc.

With James Ryan restored to the secondrow, such has been Tadhg Beirne's form that he is likely to be moved to blindside at the expense of Rhys Ruddock.

Indeed Ruddock, having finally started his first Six Nations game against France over a decade on from his Test debut, could miss out on the matchday 23 altogether. As might Josh van der Flier if, as anticipated, Will Connors is promoted to the starting line-up, as both Baird and Jack Conan appear to be in line for call-ups to the bench.

That would be tough on them both. Ruddock wasn’t really employed as a target carrier in the midfield channels against France as he often is with Leinster, but still selflessly carried 11 times into contact for 52 hard-earned metres. The only forward to make more carries and metres was CJ Stander, who was often used in the backfield. Ruddock’s numbers at the breakdown were also very good, as no Irish player hit more rucks or made more cleanouts.

Nor, if it comes to pass, can the exclusion of Ruddock behind Baird, for all his huge talent, and the dynamic Conan, be described as form selections given Ruddock was the Leinster player of the month for October, November and December.

Furthermore, Van der Flier probably had his best game for Ireland in Cardiff, but then again if these two can’t make the matchday squad that could be interpreted as a sign of strength.

While Murray has apparently been ruled out, the fit-again captain Johnny Sexton is sure to be reinstated at outhalf.

The form of Robbie Henshaw alongside Garry Ringrose means they are likely to start for the third game running, and ditto Hugo Keenan at fullback, while despite defensive issues, James Lowe's finishing ability and big left boot (of Ireland's 41 kicks out of hand against France, he accounted for 14 of them) is likely to be retained.

It may or may not be that that Jordan Larmour is promoted to the right wing instead of Keith Earls, whom he's replaced in the previous two games, despite Earls doing his best off scraps and competing well in the air against the French.

The current pecking order at outhalf suggests Billy Burns will be the back-up to Sexton rather than Ross Byrne, who will thus be one of the travelling reserves when the squad fly to Rome on Thursday afternoon.

IRELAND (possible) v Italy: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls or 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, Earls or Larmour.

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