FERGUS McFADDEN is in line to win his first Ireland cap as part of an exciting backline against Italy in Rome on Saturday, but elsewhere, coach Declan Kidney looks set to opt for bulk and experience against an ultra-physical Italian outfit.
Paul O'Connell is expected to be included in the second-row when Kidney announces his side at lunchtime today and, despite injury robbing Ireland of a clutch of front-line players such as Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris, the Lions captain believes this Irish squad is stronger than the Grand Slam-winning group of two years ago.
"We are probably a bit further down the track in terms of being a squad than we were two years ago, through the lads rotating a little bit and through more players coming through," said O'Connell yesterday.
"Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are two of the main injuries we have and when you look at the back-row we still have available to us, it just goes to show the strong situation we are in."
Mindful of the powerful Italian front five, Kidney could opt for hooker Rory Best alongside props Cian Healy and Mike Ross, despite the Ulster captain's lack of game time due to a rib injury, with Donncha O'Callaghan holding off the challenge of Leinster's in-form Leo Cullen next to O'Connell.
Sean O'Brien is set to make his first Six Nations start in place of the injured Heaslip, while Munster flankers Denis Leamy and David Wallace may complete the back-row against the Azzuri.
Furthermore, the need for bulk could also see Tomas O'Leary partnering Jonathan Sexton at scrum-half after being relegated to the Ireland Wolfhounds squad last week, with Leinster's Eoin Reddan on the bench.
Gordon D'Arcy and captain Brian O'Driscoll are expected to continue their Leinster partnership in midfield, with McFadden and Keith Earls on the wings and Luke Fitzgerald in his favoured full-back position.
There was encouraging news on the injury front yesterday with team manager Paul McNaughton revealing that Heaslip was "back running" and no longer wearing the protective boot over his damaged ankle, while winger Shane Horgan has had an injection on his injured leg that "went well".
Prop Tony Buckley is rehabilitating from the hamstring injury which forced him off early in last Friday's defeat to Scotland 'A' and is expected to be fit for this weekend's Saxons match.
IRELAND (possible) -- L Fitzgerald; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; D Leamy/S O'Brien, D Wallace, S O'Brien/D Leamy.