‘It’s been a long road’: Keatley and Murray set to steer Ireland on first step in Championship defence

THE CHALLENGERS HAVE made their bow, now the champions enter the arena.

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are in Rome to take on Italy at the Stadio Olimpico (KO 14.30, 15.30 local).

Preparations haven’t exactly been ideal for the defence of the title: from minor disruptions to frost-hit training schedules to the more visible problems like Jonathan Sexton’s concussion.

Sexton has not played or taken part in contact training sessions since a clash of heads with Rob Kearney during Ireland’s last fixture against Australia in November. The Racing Metro man had his final consultation with his neurologist on Thursday and has been cleared to take a full part in training from Monday onwards.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Before Sexton’s expected return, Schmidt has handed the reins to Munster out-half Ian Keatley, a man who has been Job-like as he waited patiently for the chance to guide Ireland in a Six Nations fixture.

Before this week, the 27-year-old Dubliner has seemed to occupy a constant position in the minds of Ireland coaches; ‘not quite’. He won his first cap five and a half years ago, playing twice in the 2009 summer tour of North America. Ronan O’Gara was with the Lions, Sexton meanwhile, was battling it out with Niall O’Connor for the right to steer the good ship Ireland A.

“It’s been a long road for him. He’s over the moon to be playing,” says Keatley’s provincial (and now international teammate) Simon Zebo.

Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

As the head coach admits, one big reason for selecting Keatley this week was his existing relationship with scrum-half Conor Murray. With a midfield that still has just the one Test’s worth of on-field experience together, the offer of such a tried and trusted combination in pivotal positions was too good to pass up.

Zebo is a returnee of sorts himself. Having missed out on the Championship last year, he impressed Schmidt enough in his November international comeback to hold on to the jersey even with competition for the jersey growing back to fierce levels.

“I’m grateful I’ve been given an opportunity, another one, to play and the Six Nations is a massive tournament. We’ve really high expectations and standards we want to achieve in this tournament. To be given the jersey early on, I am very happy with it.”

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 24-year-old wing is certainly the junior member of the back three, having won the the right to reunite with, Test Lions, Tommy Bowe (30) and Rob Kearney (28) in the back three. A combination with no shortage of star power.

“We enjoy playing when I get the opportunity to play alongside the two boys. They’re very experienced. They have been around the block. They know what they are doing. They are world class operators.

“To be able to get to know them better by playing them more often and picking lines off eachother, it’s good to be able to.”

With pundits all over Europe picking Ireland as favourites to retain the Championship, the pressure is well and truly on. Zeno and the Ireland camp though, are working hard to keep focus firmly fixed on Italy and let Sexton and Jamie Heaslip get a head-start of preparations for France.

“It’s all about the collective this weekend. If we all do our jobs right this weekend I have no doubt we can put in a great performance.”


15. Andrea Masi
14. Leonardo Sarto
13. Michele Campagnaro
12. Luca Morisi
11. Luke McLean
10. Kelly Haimona
9. Edoardo Gori

1. Matias Aguero
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini
3. Martin Castrogiovanni
4. Josh Furno
5. George Biagi
6. Alessandro Zanni
7. Francesco Minto
8. Sergio Parisse (capt.)


16. Andrea Manici
17. Alberto De Marchi
18. Dario Chistolini
19. Marco Fuser
20. Robert Barbini
21. Guglielmo Palazzani
22. Tommaso Allan
23. Giovanbattista Venditti


15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Ian Keatley
9. Conor Murray.

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5.  Paul O’Connell (capt.)
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jordi Murphy


16. Sean Cronin
17. James Cronin
18. Marty Moore
19. Iain Henderson
20. Tommy O’Donnell
21. Isaac Boss
22. Ian Madigan
23. Felix Jones.

Verdict: Italy 9 Ireland 24

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