Ireland include O’Brien for Italy in Six Nations

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has included Sean O’Brien in his team’s opening Six Nations Championship match against Italy in Rome this weekend.

O’Brien has recently recovered from two shoulder reconstruction operations and featured last weekend for the Irish Wolfhounds against the England Saxons.

The British and Irish Lions flanker has not played a Test match since November 2013 and has been on the sidelines for the last 14 months.

However after back-row Jamie Heaslip suffered a shoulder injury the door has opended for 30 cap O’Brien to play for the full Ireland side for the first time since their heart-breaking 24-22 defeat by world champions New Zealand in November 2013.

Schmidt said the absence of Heaslip, not included despite training on Thursday, had seen O’Brien installed in a revamped back-row rather than on the bench.

“Jamie trained fully today, if that had been the case on Tuesday the decision might have been different,” Schmidt told a news conference broadcast on the Irish rugby website.

“He’s 100 percent 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.

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

However, he added: “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.”

Munster’s Ian Keatley has won the nod to start at fly-half instead of Ian Madigan, with first-choice stand-off Jonathan Sexton, now with Paris-based Racing Metro, currently ruled out after being ordered to rest under concussion protocols having suffered blows to the head in November.

New Zealand-born Jared Payne has been selected in midfield alongside Robbie Henshaw, with veteran centre Gordon D’Arcy failing to find a place at all in Kiwi boss Schmidt’s matchday 23.

Payne and Henshaw were alongside each other in November when D’Arcy was injured and Ireland were without retired centre great Brian O’Driscoll.

Up front, tighthead prop Mike Ross remained Schmidt’s only ever-present selection since becoming Ireland coach.

Ross was given the task of confronting Italy’s powerful front row despite lately finding himself second-choice behind Marty Moore at Leinster.

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,” explained Schmidt.

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

Veteran lock Paul O’Connell continues to captain the side in what will be Ireland’s first Six Nations since O’Driscoll brought the curtain down on his brilliant career after the team clinched the title in Paris last year.

However, Ireland proved their was life after ‘BOD’ by winning all three of their recent November Tests, which included victories over South Africa (29-15) and Australia (26-23).

But their last visit to Rome saw Ireland suffer a shock 22-15 defeat by Italy in 2013.

Ireland

Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony; Paul O’Connell (capt), Devin Toner; Mike Ross, Rory Best, Jack McGrath

Replacements: Sean Cronin, James Cronin, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan Felix Jones

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