Ireland are beginning the defence of their RBS 6 Nations crown amid high expectations at Croke Park against wooden spoon favourites Italy.
Even without fly-half Jonathan Sexton, second row Donncha O’Callaghan and flanker Stephen Ferris, who all succumbed to injury, the 2009 Grand-Slam champions were expected to brush aside the challenge of the Azzurri, who have won just one of their last 10 championship matches.
Ireland’s veteran prop John Hayes won his 100th Test cap on his record-extending 50th consecutive championship appearance and Ronan O’Gara claimed his 94th cap while, at the other end of the scale, Kevin McLaughlin was chosen to make his debut in the back row alongside David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip.
Coach Declan Kidney recalled Andrew Trimble to the left wing for his first start for almost two years in place of Lions tourist Keith Earls, Leo Cullen replaced O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy was reunited with his Leinster centre partner Brian O’Driscoll, the Irish skipper.
Italy coach Nick Mallett kept faith with the side that beat Samoa in November to end a 13-match winless run, with hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini leading the side in the absence of injured skipper Sergio Parisse.
Ireland: Kearney, Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Trimble, O’Gara, O’Leary, Healy, Flannery, Hayes, Cullen, O’Connell, McLaughlin, D. Wallace, Heaslip. Replacements: R. Best, Court, Ryan, O’Brien, Reddan, P. Wallace, Earls.
Italy: McLean, Robertson, Canale, Garcia, M. Bergamasco, Gower, Tebaldi, Perugini, Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Del Fava, Geldenhuys, Sole, M. Bergamasco, Zanni. Replacements: Ongaro, Aguero, Bortolami, Derbyshire, Piccone, Bocchino, Masi.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)