Joe Schmidt has revealed that Jonathan Sexton would have started Sunday's Six Nations game against Italy in Rome even if Joey Carbery hadn't been ruled out with a hamstring injury suffered in training this week.
All told, Schmidt has gone with the same backline as started against Scotland two weeks ago. That means another start for Sexton who needs the minutes after an injury-interrupted start to 2019. With Carbery unavailable, Jack Carty is poised for a debut off the bench.
All four changes to the XV come up front with Dave Kilcoyne and Sean Cronin replacing Cian Healy and Rory Best in the front row, Ultan Dillane stepping up at lock in place of James Ryan and Jordi Murphy getting the nod at No.8 where Jack Conan had been stationed in Edinburgh.
“Yeah, we probably would have started Johnny anyway to be honest,” said Schmidt at the team announcement on Friday afternoon. “He's had one game and 23 minutes since Munster (in late December) so he's had very little game time whereas Joey has been very resilient and had a lot of game time, including in Edinburgh the last day.”
Schmidt's hand was guided to a significant extent by injuries.
Robbie Henshaw has been left out due to an inability to post enough minutes in training, Conan has some abdominal tightness and Jordan Larmour has hurt a finger. None of that trio are considered to be concerns for the visit of France to Dublin in another fortnight.
All in all, it is a side very much in keeping with that hinted at earlier in the week by assistant coach Richie Murphy who said there would not be wholesale changes. Some players will get rare starting opportunities, others with considerable mileage on the clock get to put the feet up.
For Cronin it will be a first ever Six Nations start in what will be his 68th cap.
“I'm sure he's excited,” said Schmidt. “He has trained well and hopefully that gives him the confidence to step out and do a great job. He will have the confidence of those ten starts he has made for us previously as well.
“The amount of times he has come off the bench and helped us get important wins will help him too. He was to start the deciding test in Oz and picked up a very slight hamstring strain and wasn't able to play that one. It's not like he doesn't know we have faith in him.”
Ireland go to the Italian capital on the back of a dispiriting defeat to England on the opening weekend and an imperfect win against the Scots in Edinburgh but Schmidt didn't exactly agree with the picture of an Irish side still lacking a certain something in confidence.
“I felt we got a lot of confidence out of the last game against Scotland. I know Scotland are a really good side. We got some real confidence out of that. I felt we showed some really good resilience. We managed that game pretty well seeing as we really needed that result.”
Ireland (v Italy): R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray;D Kilcoyne, S Cronin, T Furlong; U Dillane, Q Roux; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Murphy.
Replacements: N Scannell, J McGrath, J Ryan, I Henderson, J van der Flier, J Cooney, J Carty, A Conway.