Munster combo with Conor Murray swung Ireland nod for Keatley

Joe Schmidt has declared his confidence in Munster out-half Ian Keatley, who will wear the number ten jersey for Ireland against Italy on Saturday.

Munster combo with Conor Murray swung Ireland nod for Keatley

It will be Keatley's first-ever Six Nations appearance.

Keatley beat Leinster counterpart Ian Madigan in the race to fill in for Jonathan Sexton, who Schmidt said at Thursday afternoon's team announcement will almost certainly be available on Saturday week for France’s visit to Dublin.

“Part of it is his combination with Conor Murray,” said Schmidt in explaining the choice of Keatley over the versatile Leinster back.

“They play together week to week and they played well together. That understanding is very good.

“That's not to say that I think Ian Madigan couldn't play well with Conor. Ian Keatley has also had that rhythm of playing ten on a regular basis. Ian Madigan obviously hasn't. He has played a lot at 12 and he gives us that flexibility slotting straight into ten or twelve off the bench.”

Schmidt also spoke up for Keatley’s kicking stats.

“His percentages since Christmas are very strong. Therefore, based on that we have confidence that he will kick well. We had probably one of our longest selection meetings ever to come up with this team.”

Maybe, but there were no surprises in the 15 or 23 named. Jamie Heaslip trained fully shortly before the announcement and is rated one hundred per cent fit, but Schmidt reasoned that the number eight had missed too much prep earlier in the week and so he is being primed for the French.

Jordi Murphy comes in at number eight while Sean O’Brien starts at openside after banking 50 minutes for the Wolfhounds against the England Saxons in Cork last Friday.

Schmidt will hope to squeeze an hour out of the Tullow Tank in Rome. Mike Ross gets the nod at tighthead despite being demoted from the match day squad for Leinster’s two Rugby Champions Cup games last month although, like O'Brien, he has benefited from his Wolfhounds involvement.

Keatley aside, the back line picked itself with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne tasked with continuing the midfield partnership they established last November.

Ireland (v Italy): R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw: I Keatley, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Murphy. Replacements: S Cronin, J Cronin, M Moore, I Henderson, T O’Donnell, I Boss, I Madigan, F Jones.

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