Newly-appointed Ireland captain Rory Best will win his 90th cap in the RBS 6 Nations opener. He is joined in the front row by Jack McGrath and Championship debutant Nathan White.

The second row sees Leinster team-mates Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy paired together, with the 34-year-old McCarthy winning his first cap since the November 2014 win over Georgia.

Minus the hamstrung Sean O’Brien, the starting back row consists of the uncapped CJ Stander on the blindside, his Munster colleague Tommy O’Donnell at openside and Jamie Heaslip at number 8.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton feature at half-back, while Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are reunited in midfield for their second Six Nations campaign. Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls fill the wing berths with Simon Zebo lining out at full-back, in place of the injured Rob Kearney (hamstring).

The replacements bench features two possible Six Nations debutants in Tadhg Furlong and Kieran Marmion, and Sean Cronin, James Cronin, Donnacha Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Ian Madigan and Dave Kearney complete the matchday 23.

Commenting on some of the selection calls, Joe Schmidt said: “We looked hard at Stu (McCloskey) and Luke (Marshall), and Stu and Jared, because they had a little bit of time together.

“One of the things about picking certain combinations is that they know each other and talk in their own groups. I don’t think, collectively, everyone talks all the time. But the midfield, they are talking about how they are going to shut the (opposition) down.

“At the same time, the back-three are constantly communicating. Simon Zebo and Keith Earls know each other quite well and (Andrew) Trimble is very experienced. It is the same with our second row, in that they know each other well. Jamie has had a bit of a role in gelling the back row together as that is quite different.

“In trying to make those decisions, I’m not sure we get them right. In fact I know you’re never going to get all the decisions right. Because there are so many variables and human factors, it’s impossible to get everyone right.

“What we try to do is take as balanced approach as we can, try to factor in the variables and come up with what we think is the combination, and the individual, we need.

“We didn’t come in with any intentions. We looked at how they (the players) trained and slotted in. We trained last Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and we’ve had three sessions this week. So it’s not like we’ve got a wealth of opportunity to measure players against each other and particularly not a wealth of time to build a combination.”

On the injury front, the Ireland head coach added: “Sean (O’Brien) is just on the edge of being available to play. We’d have no concerns about next week, but we felt if the same thing happened as did against Italy (when he was forced out before the kick-off), it was quite unsettling.

“Tommy O’Donnell came in and did a great job in that match. We said we’d give Sean the opportunity to train fully next week and hopefully there’s still a fair bit to play for.

“Rob Kearney should be fully fit at the latest by Thursday. His is a very minor (hamstring) strain and he should be right to train by Tuesday, but certainly at the latest Thursday – there’s no tear, but there is discomfort which would signal it’s a risk to push him along.”

IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Wales, RBS 6 Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium Sunday, February 7, kick-off 3pm)

15. Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster) 21
14. Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster) 58
13. Jared Payne (Ulster) 10
12. Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Connacht) 15
11. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 46
10. Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 56
9. Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 42

1. Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 25
2. Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) 89 (capt)
3. Nathan White (Connacht) 8
4. Mike McCarthy (Lansdowne/Leinster) 17
5. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 31
6. CJ Stander (Munster) *
7. Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster) 9
8. Jamie Heaslip (Dublin University/Leinster) 80 (vice-capt)


16. Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 48
17. James Cronin (Dolphin/Munster) 2
18. Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 3
19. Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster) 34
20. Rhys Ruddock (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) 6
21. Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht) 4
22. Ian Madigan (Blackrock College/Leinster) 25
23. Dave Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster) 14


Eoin De Buitléar signs first Professional contract with Connacht Rugby