Seán Cronin among four changes to Ireland team
Roscommon native Jack Carty named on the Ireland bench with Joey Carbery ruled out
Ultan Dillane and Sean Cronin during an Irish training session at Carton House. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Seán Cronin, Ultan Dillane and Dave Kilcoyne will make their first Six Nations starts for Ireland against Italy in Rome on Sunday, while Connacht outhalf Jack Carty could make his debut off the bench after Joey Carbery picked up a hamstring injury.
That's an odd statistic to go alongside Cronin’s name, considering the 32-year-old Leinster hooker wins his 68th cap, but only tenth start, as Ireland captain Rory Best does not travel with the squad. Munster’s Niall Scannell is named on the bench.
“Seán has been involved off the bench in some really important wins for us so why not bring that from the start?” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. “We actually named him to start the third test in Australia, a big test, the deciding test in a big series and he picked up a slight hamstring strain.
“He knows we’ve got faith in him.”
After selecting Carty ahead of Ross Byrne this season, Schmidt has been impressed by the 26-year-old's impact in Ireland camp.
"We would have started Johnny Sexton anyway, he has had one game and 23 minutes since the Munster game in December, that’s very little game time" Schmidt explained. "Joey has a bit of a hamstring strain, it was too great a risk.
“Jack is impossible to ruffle. We try to put a bit of pressure on him at training. It hasn’t all been seamless but if something does go wrong he gets it right the next time. His ability to absorb information, to slot into the team, all those things have been really first rate.
“He went back to Connacht last week and I thought he was really good for them.”
Robbie Henshaw is lacking match fitness so the performances of Rob Kearney, Bundee Aki and Chriss Farrell against Scotland are rewarded.
“We decided to give Robbie an extra week. He didn’t have the opportunity to do quite the volume of running that would have best prepared him for the match, particularly if he was playing at 15 or 13, there would be a high volume of running with the way the Italians play.
“Rob gave a lot of confidence to the players around him in Edinburgh. We also want to keep him going.
“Robbie Henshaw is a known quantity for us. We have no hesitation in slotting him in against France, wherever he best fits. At the same time, Bundee has been really sharp at training this week. He is gathering momentum. Chris Farrell is another guy who needs game minutes but did really well in Edinburgh.
“This is what we want, guys going in and out seamlessly.”
Another notable change sees Ulster’s versatile backrow Jordi Murphy named at number eight ahead of Jack Conan who has “abdominal tightness.”
That means Josh van der Flier covers a backrow of Murphy, Seán O’Brien and captain Peter O’Mahony. It’s also the first time O’Mahony will lead Ireland into a Six Nations game.
Iain Henderson returns to the bench, having fully recovered from thumb surgery, so Tadhg Beirne is not selected. Dillane and Quinn Roux are the second row pairing as James Ryan is rested. Interestingly, Beirne will not play for Munster tonight against the Ospreys.
Andrew Conway is named as the utility replacement back ahead of Jordan Larmour.
"Jordan hurt his finger," said Schmidt. "Caught it in the fabric. We just decided to leave him until the next match. He's certainly very fit. The training metres that he covers are exceptional."
Jack McGrath returns to the squad as Cian Healy is another established international left at home.
Meanwhile Italy’s Irish head coach Conor O’Shea has made five changes to his team - Tito Tebaldi returns at scrumhalf while there are four changes in the pack. Maxime Mbandà and Jimmy Tuivaiti come into the backrow where team captain Sergio Parisse misses out through concussion. Lock Federico Ruzza comes in for his first start of the championship while Andrea Lovotti is named at loosehead prop. Former Leinster and Irish Under-20s outhalf Ian McKinley is on the bench.
ITALY: Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini (Capt), Simone Ferrari; Federico Ruzza, Dean Budd; Jimmy Tuivaiti, Maxime Mbanda, Braam Steyn. Replacements: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Alessandro Zanni, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Tommaso Castello.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; David Kilcoyne, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Seán O’Brien, Jordi Murphy. Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, John Cooney, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway.