Ireland coach Joe Schmidt gives Ian Keatley and Jared Payne vote of confidence

GETTING THE NOD: Ulster's Jared Payne and Munster's Ian Keatley start for Ireland against Italy
GETTING THE NOD: Ulster's Jared Payne and Munster's Ian Keatley start for Ireland against Italy

Eyebrows were rasied at the Ireland camp yesterday in Dublin when head coach revealed his starting match day squad which starts the defence of the Six Nations Chamionship in Rome on Saturday.

Munster’s Ian Keatley got the nod at outhalf ahead of his Leinster rival, Ian Madigan.

And Ulster’s Jared Payne was handed the number 13 jersey ahead of what will his second start for his adopted nation.

The New Zealander who signed for Ulster from Auckland in 2011 qualified to play for Ireland on residency last September.

He went on to make his debut in Ireland’s win over South Africa in Dublin.

But he limped off four minutes from the end and missed the following November Guinness Test series games against Georgia and Australia.

Payne only returned to playing for Ulster last month - starting at fullback against Toulon and Leicester Tigers in the European Champions Cup.

Schmidt had options at outside centre and it had been thought Robbie Henshaw would be given the start.

However, Schmidt is keeping faith with his fellow New Zealander and Payne is happy to be involved in his first Six Nations championship.

It will also be his first visit to Rome and the Stadio Olympio.

“It looks like a great stadium and it will be great to play in it, “ smiled Payne.

“Seriously though, it is great to be involved with Ireland. I did not think it would be happening a couple of months ago.

“I just have to make sure I go out and perform well, do my job and repay Joe for his decision in selecting me,” added Payne.

Payne will partner Henshaw in the midfield and Munster duo, Conor Murray and Keatley form the outhalf partnership.

With Jonathan Sexton sidelined as he follows concussion protocols - he is expected to start against France next week in Dublin - and Ulster’s Paddy Jackson ruled out with a shoulder injury, it was a straight call between Madigan or Keatley for the 10 shirt.

Keatley, along with Jordi Murphy, will make his Six Nations debut and Schmidt had no problems in making the call.

“It was a tight decision (between the two Ians) and it is a vote of confidence in Ian Keatley,” Schmidt said.

“He has controlled games well, he has finished games off well for Munster in clutch moments and I think that has given us a degree of confidence that he can do the same thing for us.”

Sean O’Brien will make his first Test start since November 2013, the flanker finally over 14 months of shoulder problems.

He came through some game time last week with the Irish Wolfhounds.

Schmidt confirmed vice-captain Heaslip is fit after shoulder trouble and should return for the second-round clash with France.

He also said Heaslip’s absence led to the decision to hand O’Brien a start rather than a seat on the bench.

“Jamie trained fully today, if that had been the case on Tuesday the decision might have been different,” he said.

“He’s 100 per cent fit now, he will train fully next week and that will allow him to focus on the France game.

“His powers of recuperation are second to none, but we just decided to be conservative with it.

“Sean did well last week and we feel if he can give us 50 or 60 minutes we will be where we want to be at that stage of the game and have good options behind him.”

Ulster’s Iain Henderson is named on the bench, another player making a return from a length layoff.

Henderson played for the Wolfhounds in the defeat to England Saxons last week in Cork. It was his first game in the green jersey since the Argentina tour in the summer.

Henderson underwent hip surgery and then had a hamstring issue before returning to play for Ulster against Leicester Tigers last month.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe, J Payne (both Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S Zebo, I Keatley, C Murray (all Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross, D Toner (both Leinster), P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony (both Munster), S O’Brien, J Murphy (both Leinster).

Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), T O’Donnell (Munster), I Boss, I Madigan (both Leinster), F Jones (Munster).