Thursday 22 March 2018

Ian Keatley set for Six Nations opener against Italy

Munster man beats Madigan to No 10 shirt as O'Brien starts and Heaslip on bench

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt looks set to turn to Ian Keatley for Ireland's Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome as he places his trust in the Dubliner's partnership with Munster colleague Conor Murray.

The New Zealander names his team at 12pm today before flying to the Italian capital and, along with the selection of Keatley (right), is expected to name Sean O'Brien at openside with Jordi Murphy at No 8.

In a surprise move, it is believed Jamie Heaslip could be included on the bench as back-row cover if he comes through this morning's training session despite the shoulder problem that has limited his involvement.

Starting O'Brien would appear to be a calculated gamble by the Ireland supremo given he only made his comeback from a second shoulder reconstruction in 12 months when playing for 50 minutes for the Ireland Wolfhounds last Friday, but the normally resilient Heaslip has struggled to shake the injury that has limited his involvement so far in 2015.

Schmidt looks set to keep faith in Mike Ross despite the tighthead being left out in the cold by Leinster coach Matt O'Connor who has favoured the man likely to deputise at the Stadio Olimpico, Marty Moore, in recent weeks.

Devin Toner and captain Paul O'Connell remain the preferred choice at second-row, while Heaslip's injury has forced a rethink at the back of the scrum with Peter O'Mahony joining O'Brien and Murphy.

Behind the scrum, Schmidt is expected to reunite Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne in the centre, while Simon Zebo is the favourite to hold on to the No 11 jersey despite the return of Dave Kearney, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald to fitness.

It looks like being a disappointing morning for that trio of returning players with Felix Jones in line for the No 23 jersey on a bench that includes Madigan with Kieran Marmion and Isaac Boss battling for the reserve scrum-half slot.

Up front, Cian Healy's return to training is unlikely to see him force his way on to the bench ahead of James Cronin, while Sean Cronin and Moore will hope to make an impact along with Iain Henderson.

Ireland (v Italy - possible line-up): R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Murphy. Reps: S Cronin, J Cronin, M Moore, I Henderson, J Heaslip, K Marmion, I Madigan, F Jones.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport