Bundee Aki has been released from Ireland camp and starts for Connacht in Friday’s Guinness PRO14 clash away to Benetton Rugby (5.30pm Irish time).
Aki started in last week’s bonus point win over Cardiff Blues and his inclusion is a huge boost for the westerners as they bid to make it three wins on the bounce in the PRO14.
Oisin Dowling has also been handed his first start for the province, having featured off the bench in the last two games.
Dowling is joined alongside Gavin Thornbury in the second row, with Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham completing the tight five. The back row is unchanged from the win over Cardiff Blues last time out, with Paul Boyle at number 8 alongside flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler.
There’s a new-look half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion alongside Conor Fitzgerald, while Tom Daly partners O’Brien in the centre. Finally Tiernan O’Halloran is handed his first start in nearly two months after recovering from injury, taking his place at full-back with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.
There’s an experienced look to the bench with centurions Denis Buckley, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty all included.
Head Coach Andy Friend said: “This is a big day for Oisin getting his first start, and with Bundee released from Ireland duty and the likes of Tiernan and Kieran coming into the team also they bring a lot of experience with them. Overall we’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going.
"We realistically need 5 wins from 5 to have a chance of finishing top of the Conference, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before. Italy is always a tough place to get a win and we’ve seen from their last few performances that they’re getting closer to that first victory this season, so we have to be at our best to make sure that doesn’t come against us.”