Farrell gives Byrne and Casey first Six Nations starts for Italy clash

Ross Byrne and Craig Casey form a new halfback partnership as both make their first Six Nations starts against Italy on Saturday with Ireland bidding to make it three wins from three matches.

Byrne comes in for Ireland's injured talismanic fly-half Johnny Sexton. Casey gets the nod from head coach Andy Farrell after Munster team-mate Conor Murray started the wins over Wales and 2022 champions France.

For 27-year-old Byrne, it will be his 17th cap and for Casey, 23, his 10th.

Byrne impressed Farrell with his performances in the win over Australia last November and came on for Sexton with over half-an-hour of the France match remaining and closed it out.

Farrell said that Byrne and Casey had been selected on merit not just to inject a bit of freshness into the starting line-up.

"They have earned the right to start," said Farrell at his press conference prior to flying to Rome.

"Preparation has been great and they seem ready for it.

"People wouldn't have been selected if they weren't in the right place.

"So, we're not just turning things around for the sake of it, we are turning things around because we think it's a strong side for us going forward, for this game and for the future as well."

In the absence of Sexton, James Ryan skippers a side -- unveiled on Thursday -- which shows six changes from the 32-19 win over the French.

"James just happens to be one of those leaders who will put his hand up week-in, week-out, and lead from the front in how he performs on the field," said Farrell of 26-year-old Ryan, who skippers the side for a seventh time.

Bundee Aki comes in at centre to partner Garry Ringrose, who wins his 50th cap. Jack Conan is chosen at No8, replacing Peter O'Mahony.

Iain Henderson lines-up alongside Ryan in the second row -- Tadhg Beirne has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament -- and Ronan Kelleher starts at hooker.

Kelleher -- first choice last year -- returned to the matchday squad for the France game and gets his chance because Rob Herring took a hit to the head against France.

Dan Sheehan, who was the starting hooker against Wales in the opener, comes back into the squad on the replacements bench after missing the France game with a hamstring injury.

The bench offers experience, with Test centurion Murray and 91-times capped O'Mahony.

There is no place for Joey Carbery, often seen as the long-term successor to Sexton.

Although the 27-year-old was called up on Monday, his younger Munster team-mate Jack Crowley is on the bench.

Carbery, though, like Sexton will travel with the team to Rome.

"We think he's a great player," Farrell said of Carbery.

"Ross and Jack we wanted to have a look at and keep developing.

"Ross had earned the right and there is a bit of feedback to Joey.

"Him coming back into camp, we get to have the chat again about his reflection about the feedback etc and where is he now with all that."

The Irish will be hot favourites having lost just once to Italy in the Six Nations -- in Rome in 2013 -- although their opponents having shown a vast improvement over the past 12 months.


Team (15-1)

Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Craig Casey; Jack Conan; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier; James Ryan (capt), Iain Henderson; Finlay Bealham, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Jack Crowley, Stuart McCloskey

Coach: Andy Farrell (ENG)