Sexton injury lets O’Gara slip back in Ireland team

Ireland will kick off their defence of their Grand Slam title with Ronan O’Gara pulling the strings at flyhalf after Jonathan Sexton was ruled out of Saturday’s SixNations opener against Italy.

Sexton had been tipped to start the tournament after kicking all of Ireland’s points in their 15-10 win over world champions South Africa in November.

But the Leinster star has suffered a dead leg injury, prompting head coach Declan Kidney to recall Ireland’s record points scorer O’Gara to his starting line-up for his 94th cap with Paddy Wallace providing specialist cover on the bench.

Leinster back row Kevin McLaughlin will make his Ireland debut at blindside flanker after Kidney decided not to risk Stephen Ferris, who should have recovered for a knee injury in time for Ireland’s second match, against tournament favourites France.

McLaughlin was not surprised that he had got the nod from Kidney.

“I would not say I am shocked,” said the 24-year-old.

“I felt like I had a chance coming into this week.

“It’s a big step up for me this weekend but I will treat it like any other game, just get on with it and play my game on Saturday.”

Ulster’s Andrew Trimble makes his first international appearance since March 2008 after being preferred to Keith Earls on the left wing.

Gordon D’Arcy once again teams up with skipper Brian O’Driscoll in the Irish midfield having displaced Wallace from the inside centre berth.

Munster front row Jerry Flannery is given the nod at hooker, despite having played no provincial rugby since recovering from the Achilles injury that has kept him out for the last two months.

O’Driscoll – who will win his 97th cap – and Donncha O’Callaghan are both carrying minor knocks but they were not deemed sufficiently serious for either man to be left out.

Veteran prop John Hayes will win his 98th cap and the 36-year-old Munster legend appears destined to beat O’Driscoll to becoming the first Irish player to reach a century of caps.

O’Callaghan’s Munster team-mate and fellow lock Paul O’Connell will have to bite his tongue with the French referee Romain Poite after the two previous occasions that he has officiated in a match with the British and Irish Lions captain has not left the Irishman with a favourable impression of him.

Indeed only a fortnight ago Poite yellow carded O’Connell during the crucial European Cup clash with Northampton – minutes after the second row forward had been told in no uncertain terms who was in charge after a verbal exchange.

“I was steaming angry about being sin-binned,” said O’Connell at the time.

“A lot of things were confusing out there. However, thats what what happens when one has no communication and its just dictation.”

Ireland (15-1)

Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt.), Gordan D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary; Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Kevin McLaughlin, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery, Cian Healy

Replacements: Rory Best, Tom Court, Leo Cullen, Sean O’Brien, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Wallace, Keith Earls Ref: Romain Poite (FRA)

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