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Farrell has picked an undeniably exciting Ireland team to take on Italy

The back three of Lowry, Hansen, and Lowe will do some damage against Italy.

Joey Carbery starts at 10 again tomorrow.
Joey Carbery starts at 10 again tomorrow.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AS RELIABLY AS night follows day, Ireland team announcements bring dissatisfaction among hefty numbers of rugby supporters around the island.

Happily, those dissenting voices were drowned out yesterday as Andy Farrell named an Ireland matchday 23 that is undeniably exciting.

It’s a clash with Italy ahead tomorrow, of course, so there is considerably less risk involved. Injuries and unavailabilities have changed the picture quite a bit this week too. But still, it’s a positive, progressive selection from the Ireland head coach.

Take your pick in terms of the exciting decisions ahead of tomorrow. Farrell himself sees it as a quick, skillful, calm team with a good knowledge of how they want to play.

Ulster’s diminutive but daring Mike Lowry will win his first cap at fullback against the Italians as Hugo Keenan gets a breather following 18 consecutive starts for Ireland.

Lowry is small in stature but he packs a punch with his attacking qualities and gritty approach to contact. He has been superb for Ulster all season.

“I think his size is an added bonus for him,” said Farrell. “I think it makes him an absolute nightmare for people to handle.

“Since his first day at Ulster, he hasn’t grown but he’s certainly got braver, more dynamic, more game awareness, more game sense. He’s able to play the game in many different ways. He’s explosive, hits a line, is brave, so we’re hoping he can be himself.”

James Lowe returns on the left wing to win his 10th cap, looking to pick up where he left off last November. Rather than drop Mack Hansen, Farrell has shifted the Connacht man over to the right wing.

Andrew Conway rests up a few injury niggles and while Robert Baloucoune must be concerned about his lack of opportunities, this Ireland back three looks like it’s going to be creative and bring cutting edge.

mike-lowry Mike Lowry starts at fullback. Source: Ryan Bailey/INPHO

Back in November, Farrell said he didn’t want wings like Lowe to be “too tidy” in their attacking play, and this trio look like they all fit that mould.

“Together, we work on strategies of how to get them into the game,” said Farrell. “We don’t want them just sat on the wings and being an extra man out there. We want them to understand how to find ways [to get involved] and we work hard on that.

“We don’t just say, ’Off you go and roam.’ There’s a bit of a system that they adhere to.

“But the good ones, they find a way to make that happen and understand what we are trying to achieve so, therefore, they are in the right place at the right time. And that’s what they’ve done pretty well.”

Hansen wearing the number 14 jersey for the first time in his pro career matters less to Farrell because of that system of having the wings get infield.

“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Farrell. “He has a feel of the game no matter what side he’s on.”

Garry Ringrose gets a chance to continue his good form at outside centre, as well as providing some leadership, but it would be a surprise if Ulster’s in-form James Hume doesn’t get a decent stint off the bench on his third cap. Robbie Henshaw will welcome his first start of the Six Nations at number 12 as Bundee Aki takes a breather.

Of course, the decision to start Joey Carbery ahead of the fit-again Johnny Sexton is a big one from Farrell. It’s sensible too.

Sexton obviously would have wanted to come straight back in after missing Ireland’s defeat in Paris two weekends ago, but Farrell gives Carbery another great chance to build more experience. Sexton will have to make do with a replacement appearance.

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“He wants to play, the same as Conor [Murray] wants to play, the same as Bundee wants to play, the same as whoever,” said Farrell of Sexton.

andy-farrell-arrives Andy Farrell is excited about this Ireland team. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“But they understand, they’re team players, they’re squad players, they want to put their best foot forward every single week and pull on the jersey and perform for their country. But they understand the reasons why.”

Peter O’Mahony captains Ireland with James Ryan ruled out due to what the IRFU say is an adductor injury. The Munster man has plenty of experience, of course, and will welcome the start after being forced off in Paris with a head injury just minutes after being introduced from the bench.

Caelan Doris switches roles into the number eight shirt, where many people feel he is at his best. Gavin Coombes will certainly feel unlucky not to be involved again. His wait goes on.

There are two changes in the Irish tight five, with Dan Sheehan making his first Test start after four impressive performances off the bench so far, while 22-year-old Ryan Baird gets his first Six Nations start exactly a year after his Test debut as a sub in Rome.

“We’re really pleased for him,” said Farrell of Baird. “He’s been around the group for a long time now, he’s come off the bench and looked very dangerous. It’s a different dynamic for Ryan starting a game and I’m sure he’s going to grab it with both hands.”

With the high-tempo Craig Casey also set to come off the bench in the second half – meaning Murray misses out on the matchday squad – this is an Ireland 23 to be excited about.

And while the squad development is great, Farrell is focused on one thing only tomorrow.

“It’s all about winning Test matches and make no mistake about it, we’re still in with a chance of winning the championship.”

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Murray Kinsella

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