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Keatley and O'Brien in starting line-up as Ireland begin Six Nations defence
However, there is no place for Jamie Heaslip in the matchday 23.

IRELAND HEAD COACH Joe Schmidt has handed Ian Keatley the number 10 jersey for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday.

The Munster out-half will win just his fourth cap and the match will be his first international start since the summer tour Tests in North America in 2009.

The 27-year-old edged out Leinster’s Ian Madigan’s for the right to play understudy before Jonathan Sexton’s expected return next week.

Schmidt has also been able to recall Sean O’Brien to openside for the first time since the defeat to New Zealand in November 2013. The flanker made a successful return from shoulder surgery for in the Wolfhounds’ defeat to England Saxons last week.

O’Brien’s return does not mean the back row is at full strength, however, as  Jamie Heaslip’s shoulder injury has kept him out of the matchday 23. Jordi Murphy will instead  fill the number eight jersey with Peter O’Mahony remaining blindside.

In the backline, Simon Zebo gets the nod over Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing with Schmidt’s starting centre partnership in the November internationals – Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw – reunited for the Six Nations Championship.

Ireland team v Italy (KO 14.30 Saturday):

15. Rob Kearney

14. Tommy Bowe

13. Jared Payne

12. Robbie Henshaw

11. Simon Zebo

10. Ian Keatley

9. Conor Murray.

1. Jack McGrath

2. Rory Best

3. Mike Ross

4. Devin Toner

5.  Paul O’Connell (capt.)

6. Peter O’Mahony

7. Sean O’Brien

8. Jordi Murphy


16. Sean Cronin

17. James Cronin

18. Marty Moore

19. Iain Henderson

20. Tommy O’Donnell

21. Isaac Boss

22. Ian Madigan

23. Felix Jones.

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