Joe Schmidt: This was the longest management meeting to decide the starting team
Jamie Heaslip misses out as Keatley gets the nod
Jamie Heaslip has lost his battle for fitness ahead of the Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome while Munster out-half Ian Keatley is preferred to Ian Madigan at out-half.
The Leinster number 8 will miss only his second Six Nations game in the last 36 and Schmidt said that while he is fit, the game has come too soon for the former Ireland captain.
"Jamie trained fully today," he said. "If that was the case Tuesday he'd be playing. He's fully fit, but he can focus fully on France game."
Jordi Murphy takes the place of his provincial team-mate at number 8 with Munster's Tommy O'Donnell named among the replacements.
Schmidt also admitted that Madigan's lack of game time at 10 ultimately cost him a place on the team but is confident that Keatley will deliver in Rome after winning the "tight decision".
"The combination with Conor Murray works well. The play well together, which is not to say couldn’t play well with Conor.
"Ian has played a lot at 12, flexibility is a nice thing to have off the bench. It was a tight decision and a vote of confidence for Ian Keatley, who has finished games off well for Munster.
Schmidt also praised the Leinster back for his reaction to the selection.
"He's a guy I know very well, incredibly positive. His first question was 'Am I covering 10 and 12?"
Sean O'Brien returns for his first time in a green jersey since the 2014 Autumn international defeat to New Zealand and Schmidt admits there is an element of risk to starting the 'Tullow Tank'.
"We didn't see him starting this week (before the Saxons), we think he did well last week.
"There's always an element of risk. If Sean can give us a great 50, 60 minutes, that will help put us into the game in what will be a tough game."
Tommy O'Donnell takes his place among the replacements.
Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw resume their midfield partnership, while up front, Schmidt has decided to keep faith in Mike Ross despite the tighthead being left out in the cold by Leinster coach Matt O'Connor who has favoured Marty Moore, in recent weeks.
"We think he is in better condition than Autumn," he said of Ross. We're confident he can do the job
"It's a nice headache to have."
The head coach conceded that the competition for places in the squad and team selection gave the management team plenty to mull over.
"It was one of the longest selection meets ever for this team."
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.
Simon Zebo holds on to the No 11 jersey despite the return of Dave Kearney, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald to fitness.
Isaac Boss has been preferred to Kieran Marmion as cover for Conor Murray at scrum-half.
Ireland team v Italy: 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, Tommy O'Donnell, Isaac Boss, I Madigan, F Jones.
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