Revealed! CJ Stander and Simon Zebo start as Joe Schmidt names team for Wales
South Africa-born flanker CJ Stander will make his Test debut in Sunday's RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales, with Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney taking Ireland's injury toll to nine frontline stars.
Munster back-rower Stander will start at blindside at Dublin's Aviva Stadium, the 23-year-old having completed his Ireland qualification on residency grounds.
Leinster duo O'Brien and Kearney have both failed to beat hamstring trouble in time to face Wales, so Tommy O'Donnell slots in at openside flanker and Simon Zebo at full-back.
O'Brien and Kearney sat out training on Friday, but Ireland will hope to have two of their most experienced men fit in time for the second-round clash against France in Paris.
Flanker O'Donnell dislocated his hip in Ireland's 35-21 warm-up victory over Wales in Cardiff in August.
The 28-year-old has hit back to fitness and form with Munster however, and will be a popular selection among Ireland's squad given his rotten injury luck in missing the World Cup.
Even leaving aside former captain Paul O'Connell, now retired from Test rugby, Ireland are still shorn of six regulars in their pack this weekend.
Props Cian Healy and Mike Ross, lock Iain Henderson, and flankers Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry join O'Brien on the treatment table.
Only new skipper Rory Best, vice captain Jamie Heaslip and Devin Toner have retained their starting berths from Ireland's 43-20 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina.
Stander's debut has been accelerated due to O'Mahony's absence, but the former Springboks Under-20s star has excelled in his three years with Munster.
The Thomond Park province's European Champions Cup captain would have risen to Test prominence earlier had he not had to bide his time for residency qualification.
Kearney's absence in the backline hands Munster's livewire attacking talent Zebo a chance to impress, with Ireland boss Joe Schmidt refusing to stray from a tried and tested midfield line-up.
Schmidt has restored his preferred midfield partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, refusing the temptation to pitch bullish Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey in for a Test debut.
With Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald both long-term absentees, Keith Earls partners Andrew Trimble on the wings.
Speaking at the team announcement in Carton House, Schmidt praised debutant Stander: "He's been fitting in really well. He's certainly a really committed character. We just felt it would be a good mix in the absence of Sean O'Brien.
"Whenever someone is making their debut, I know he has had positive underage success, but nothing like Test arena to test where you are at."
On the injuries that have kept O'Brien and Kearney from taking part, he added: "(O'Brien) was on the edge of being able to play. We gave Sean the opportunity to train properly next week.
"Sean leads from the front, thankfully we still have Jamie there with his experience.
"Rob should be fully fit at the latest on Thursday, His is a very minute strain. he should be right to train for Tuesday, or at the latest next Thursday. There's no tear, but there is some discomfort."
Schmidt refuted claims that Ireland would play a narrow, kick and chase game.
"Every team is beatable. Wales want you to play at them a fair bit. The biggest thing they back is their defence and their line speed. We have got to be smart how we play the game. Hopefully we can adapt to the conditions," he said.
"Last year we moved the ball around well against them. There were bits of that game we played superbly. We kicked 11 times, despite what might have been said, they kicked 22 times."
More to follow
Teams for Ireland versus Wales, Aviva Stadium, Sunday, 3pm.
Ireland: (15-9) S Zebo (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); (1-8) J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), N White (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), M McCarthy (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), T O'Donnell (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: (16-23) S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), R Ruddock (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Madigan (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster).
Wales: (15-9) G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues); G North (Northampton), J Davies (Clermont Auvergne), J Roberts (Harlequins), T James (Cardiff Blues); D Biggar (Ospreys), G Davies (Scarlets); (1-8) R Evans (Scarlets), S Baldwin (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets), L Charteris (Racing 92), A-W Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: (16-23) K Owens (Scarlets), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), T Francis (Exeter), B Davies (Wasps), D Lydiate (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Priestland (Bath), A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson and Ben O'Keefe (both New Zealand).