DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, scrumhalf Conor Murray and lock James Ryan were ruled out of Sunday's Six Nations clash with France in a massive setback to coach Andy Farrell as he seeks to keep his side's tournament hopes alive.
Sexton and Ryan, two of Farrell's most important players, were replaced due to suspected concussions during last week's opening 21-16 loss to Wales. Ireland played most of the game with 14 men following Peter O'Mahony's 14th minute red card.
Billy Burns will win just his fifth cap in place of Sexton. The Ulster flyhalf made a costly error in the final seconds in Cardiff when he attempted to kick for an attacking lineout five metres out, but booted the penalty too long.
The lack of top level backup made Sexton's return much more critical. Ulster's Iain Henderson ably filled the big hole left by Ryan last Sunday and will captain the side for the first time while the in-form Rhys Ruddock slots in to the backrow as O'Mahony begins a three-match suspension.
However news of Murray's hamstring injury in training was a late blow with Farrell told just 15 minutes before announcing his team that the Munsterman required a scan. Jamison Gibson Park comes in at nine.
"You always at the back of your mind have the 'what if' scenarios and here we are... We've lost some experience, but one man's misfortune is another's opportunity," Farrell told a news conference.
For Ruddock, whose father Mike coached Wales to a grand slam in 2005, it means a first Six Nations start more than a decade after making his test debut at the age of 19 and having since captained his country on a number of occasions.
The 30-year-old has been unlucky with injury and years of intense backrow competition at club and country but is playing some of best rugby of his career, having won Leinster's player of the month for three successive months to December.
Ireland team to face France
15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster) 7 caps
14. Keith Earls (Munster) 89 caps
13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster) 31 caps
12. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster) 48 caps
11. James Lowe (Leinster) 3 caps
10. Billy Burns (Ulster) 4 caps
9. Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 6 caps
1. Cian Healy (Leinster) 105 caps
2. Rob Herring (Ulster) 17 caps
3. Andrew Porter (Leinster) 33 caps
4. Tadhg Beirne (Munster) 18 caps
5. Iain Henderson (c) (Ulster) 59 caps
6. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster) 26 caps
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster) 29 caps
8. CJ Stander (Munster) 47 caps
16. Ronan Kelleher (Leinster) 7 caps
17. Ed Byrne (Leinster) 3 caps
18. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 45 caps
19. Ultan Dillane (Connacht) 17 caps
20. Will Connors (Leinster) 6 caps
21. Craig Casey (Munster) uncapped
22. Ross Byrne (Leinster) 11 caps
23. Jordan Larmour (Leinster) 25 caps
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Toby Davis)