O'Gara steps in for Ireland opener

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The Independent Online

Ireland will open their Grand Slam defence with Ronan O'Gara at fly-half after Jonathan Sexton was ruled out against Italy with a leg injury.

Sexton seized the number 10 jersey last autumn when outstanding performances against Fiji and South Africa thrust him above O'Gara in the pecking order.



Both players have been in fine form but the 24-year-old Sexton, capped twice, was favourite to start at Croke Park on Saturday - until a dead leg injury ended his involvement.



Paddy Wallace, who played at fly-half in the A team defeat by England Saxons on Sunday, provides cover on the bench.



Leinster back row Kevin McLaughlin will make his debut at blindside flanker after Stephen Ferris lost his battle with a knee injury.



Ferris sustained the injury while on Heineken Cup duty for Ulster against Bath 10 days ago and has not been risked with the crucial showdown against France looming on Saturday week.



Andrew Trimble makes his first international appearance since March 2008 with his fine season for Ulster nudging him ahead of Keith Earls on the left wing.



Gordon D'Arcy, another Ireland back who is enjoying an eye-catching season, features at inside centre - a position held by Wallace in the autumn.



Munster front row Jerry Flannery is given the nod at hooker, despite having played no provincial rugby since recovering from the Achilles injury that has kept him out for the last two months.



Rory Best of Ulster, who also started for Ireland A in Bath last weekend, is included on the bench to continue his comeback from neck surgery.



Brian O'Driscoll and Donncha O'Callaghan sat out training yesterday with minor knocks but both make the starting line-up.



In total there are four changes to the side that toppled world champions South Africa 15-10 in last autumn's dripping climax at Croke Park.



Ireland start the Six Nations second favourites behind France while Italy, who are without injured talisman Sergio Parisse, are odds-on to land the wooden spoon.

Ireland team to play Italy in the RBS 6 Nations Championship on Saturday, February 6, at Croke Park (1430):

R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), K McLaughlin (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).



Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), L Cullen (Leinster), S O'Brien (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), P Wallace (Ulster), K Earls (Munster).

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