Ross Byrne and Craig Casey handed first Six Nations starts against Italy

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has handed first Guinness Six Nations starts to half-back pair Ross Byrne and Craig Casey as part of six changes for Saturday’s clash with Italy.

Fly-half Byrne replaces injured Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton, while scrum-half Casey comes in for fellow Munster man Conor Murray.

Hooker Ronan Kelleher, lock Iain Henderson, back-row forward Jack Conan and centre Bundee Aki have also been recalled for the visit to Rome.

Henderson’s second-row partner James Ryan will captain Farrell’s Grand Slam-chasing side at Stadio Olimpico in the absence of Sexton.

Veteran number 10 Sexton sustained a groin issue in the 32-19 round-two win over France, resulting in a rare Test start for Byrne.

The 27-year-old has won 14 of his previous 16 caps as a replacement and spent 20 months in the international wilderness before returning to kick the decisive penalty in November’s win over Australia.

He has since gone on to dislodge Joey Carbery as first-choice deputy to Sexton, with Munster’s Jack Crowley providing back-up from the bench this weekend.

Craig Casey made his Test debut in Rome two years ago
Craig Casey made his Test debut in Rome two years ago (Marco Iacobucci/PA)

Casey made his international debut when Ireland visited Italy in 2021. The 23-year-old has nine caps but his only previous start came against the United States later that year.

Conan comes in at number eight, meaning Caelan Doris switches to blindside flanker, with Peter O’Mahony dropping to the bench.

Kelleher and Henderson will make their first Test starts since last year’s championship, with the latter replacing Tadhg Beirne, who has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament with an ankle issue sustained against the French.

Props Andrew Porter and Finlay Bealham join Kelleher in the front row, with openside flanker Josh Van Der Flier completing the pack.

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Garry Ringrose will partner Aki in midfield to win his 50th cap as the Irish bid to build on victories over Wales and Les Bleus in their quest to secure a first Six Nations title since 2018.

Wings Mack Hansen and James Lowe and full-back Hugo Keenan retain their starting spots.

Munster trio O’Mahony, Murray and Crowley are joined on the bench by Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne, Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird and Stuart McCloskey.

Ireland, who remain top of the world rankings, have dominated previous meetings between the nations but were beaten 22-15 in the Italian capital a decade ago.