Ireland have refused to gamble Johnny Sexton’s RBS 6 Nations fitness on Saturday’s tournament-defining encounter with Italy in Rome.
Lose at the Stadio Olimpico and Ireland would concede any lingering title chances, but boss Joe Schmidt has refused any temptation to field his linchpin fly-half.
Sexton missed the 27-22 loss in Scotland with calf trouble and was only ever handed an outside chance of facing Italy, so head coach Schmidt has again turned to Paddy Jackson to run his backline.
Sexton has not played since Leinster’s 24-24 draw at Castres on January 20, but Ireland still expect the 31-year-old to be ready to face France in Dublin on February 25.
The fit-again Donnacha Ryan replaces Iain Henderson at lock after Ireland missed the Munster man’s wily tight work in Edinburgh.
Ryan and Cian Healy slot in to start in the only changes from the galling Scotland defeat, with Ireland’s Kiwi boss Schmidt challenging the bulk of those players to provide immediate atonement.
Connacht’s Ultan Dillane is preferred to Henderson as the lock cover on the bench, with Ulster wing Craig Gilroy also named among the replacements.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose, R Henshaw (both Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); P Jackson (Ulster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), S O’Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster).
Replacements: N Scannell (Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), J Ryan (Munster), U Dillane (Connacht), J Van der Flier (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Keatley (Munster), C Gilroy (Ulster).