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Keenan and Connors handed Ireland debuts in Six Nations clash with Italy

Hugo Keenan

Hugo Keenan and Will Connors will make their Ireland debuts in the Six Nations match with Italy at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

Keenan, 24, will start on the wing while Leinster team-mate Connors, who is the same age, gets the nod at flanker ahead of the more experienced Josh van der Flier.

“We do definitely think they are ready,” said Ireland coach Andy Farrell after naming his side on Wednesday.

Connors was in the squad to face Italy in February before the game was called off.

“Will is champing at the bit. He has been involved before and has had seven months to think about it.

“We think Will adds a little bit of mobility to our back-row and obviously defence is a big part of the game.

“Hugo is an exciting player and capable of adding variety.”

New Zealand-born scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park is also likely to make his first appearance after being named on the bench.

‘Generals’ Murray and Sexton

Farrell, though, has stuck with the tried and tested half-back partnership of Conor Murray at scrum-half and captain Johnny Sexton at fly-half.

Farrell said unlike other positions — the back row and the centres where competition is fierce — he had not had to think twice about selecting his half-backs.

“They’re generals of the game and they’ve got the authority to play the way we want to,” he said.

Ireland still entertain hopes of the title — a bonus point win over Italy would put them a point ahead of England and France going into the final round of matches.

The Irish take on France in Paris in their final match on Saturday week, with England away to Italy in Rome.

The Six Nations was brought to a halt in March when the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Ireland’s game in Dublin will be held behind closed doors due to pandemic health protocols. On Monday Ireland became the first EU country to return to lockdown.

Farrell said he and the team were aware of their responsibility to lift  the country’s spirits 

The former England rugby league great — who replaced Joe Schmidt as head coach following last year’s World Cup — said the team’s performance was the key.

“Of course, we all know what kind of time it is,” said the 45-year-old Englishman.

“We can all talk about the responsibilities that we have.

“We are desperate to help lighten the mood but we can’t put any more pressure on our shoulders.

“How we lighten the mood is looking after our own back yard and make sure that the performance is fitting for what people want to see.”

Team (15-1)

Jacob Stockdale; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Hugo Keenan; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Will Connors, Caelan Doris; James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne; Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Cian Healy

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw

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