DECLAN KIDNEY has named his Ireland team to face Italy in this weekend’s crunch Rugby World Cup tie, with a slew of big names returning to the Irish ranks for the winner-take-all encounter.
The side includes eight changes from the experimental line-up which thrashed Russia last week – but, crucially, only two changes from the starting 15 that secured the biggest shock of the tournament to date when they beat Australia a fortnight ago.
As had been predicted, Ronan O’Gara retains his spot at out-half after his totemic performance against the Russians, with Jonny Sexton’s erratic placekicking meaning he will have to settle for a spot on the bench in Dunedin.
Announcing the team, Kidney insisted that it was not solely placekicking form that had chosen the side – but that O’Gara’s defensive performance against the Bears had been the clinching factor.
O’Gara will be partnered in the half-backs by his Munster teammate Conor Murray, who is preferred over both Eoin Reddan, who started against the Wallabies, and Isaac Boss who featured in last week’s win.
The retention of the rest of the side from the Australian win means Rob Kearney retains his spot at full-back, while Keith Earls is switched back the wing as Gordon D’Arcy and captain Brian O’Driscoll return to the centre.
Tommy Bowe is provisionally named on the wing, despite a staggered training schedule; if he cannot prove his fitness, Andrew Trimble will take his spot.
Among the forwards, Cian Healy and Mike Ross will start either side of Rory Best; Paul O’Connell, who remains a slight injury worry, is named in the second row alongside regular partner Donnacha O’Callaghan; and Jamie Heaslip is flanked by Séan O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.
The seven men on the replacements bench have not yet been confirmed, pending O’Connell proving his fitness; if he cannot make the starting line-up, Leinster captain Leo Cullen will feature. Otherwise, either Donnacha Ryan or Denis Leamy will be dropped from the bench.
Similarly, one of either Bowe, Trimble or Geordan Murphy will feature, depending on whether the Ospreys winger can ensure his fitness ahead of what is essentially Ireland’s first knock-out tie of the tournament.
With the fluidity on the bench, only four of the 30-strong squad does not stand a chance of featuring.
A draw in Dunedin will be enough for Ireland to top the pool, and secure a likely quarter-final against Wales; a defeat, however, would see Italy leapfrog Ireland into second spot and probably see the boys in green take an early flight home.
Ireland (v Italy, Sunday, kick-off 8:30am Irish time)
Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe (or Andrew Trimble), Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (or Leo Cullen); Stephen Ferris, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin; Either Tom Court or Tony Buckley; Two of Donnacha Ryan, Leo Cullen or Denis Leamy; Eoin Reddan; Jonathan Sexton; Either Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe or Geordan Murphy.