Andy Farrell has insisted he didn’t pick his latest Ireland with any bias towards Leinster after an XV to take on Italy this Saturday in Rome was named with a backline hailing entirely from the Leo Cullen-led province in what is a must-win game for the under-pressure Test coach. 

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Ireland have endured their worst start to a championship since 1998, losing their opening matches to Wales and France, and Farrell has now taken a scalpel to his selection, making seven changes following the defeat to the French last time out. 

The shake-up means his starting selection includes eleven players from Leinster – including an entire backline – with only Munster trio Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, along with Ulster’s Iain Henderson, getting a look in from provinces other than the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions.    

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It’s an eleven-strong representation for Leinster in the starting XV that is an increase of two from the nine players they had chosen in the XVs that started the previous February matches versus the Welsh and the French. 

However, Farrell insisted he didn’t set out to purposely select so many Leinster players, claiming the team he announced was what he felt was their best side to take on Italy this weekend. “No,” he replied when asked had he chosen his team with a view to having Leinster as the only representation in the Irish backline.

“We play the game as it is in front of us and we have made the right decisions along the way hopefully. I never look at a team sheet and say how many are from any province whatsoever. It just so happens that this is the right team for this game this weekend.”

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While Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier were four Leinster forwards to drop out from the XV that began the February 14 loss to France in Dublin, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Will Connors have been included in the pack to ensure Leinster still have half the pack selection. 

However, it is in the backline where Leinster have assumed total dominance for this weekend as fit-again skipper Johnny Sexton returns at out-half and Jordan Larmour is promoted by Farrell to a starting spot on the wing in place of benched Munster veteran Keith Earls.  

That Leinster duo are joined in the Ireland backs by the repeat Farrell selections of Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park. “I have been around long enough to know that good players, dangerous players, can make something out of nothing and certainly Jordan is one of those,” said Farrell about the promoted Larmour before commenting on hamstrung scrum-half Conor Murray. 

“We made a decision on Conor quite early because he is still got a few days to go. He is progressing well but we made a decision early with him so he hasn’t done that much training this week.”

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Farrell added that IRFU contract negotiations are going well with Sexton, who quipped in a throwaway remark the other day that he might not be around at the next World Cup in 2023, by which stage he will be 38. “There is no difficulty from my point of view – and I’m sure there is not from Johnny’s point of view as well.

“Conversations are going on in the background and both sides are happy with those conversations. Johnny keeps being his bright self during the week and he has certainly been at the forefront of what has been a great week so far. As long as Johnny keeps on giving to Irish rugby, he will keep putting his foot forward to be in the equation, won’t he?

“He feels good at this moment in time, his appetite is as strong as ever. He is certainly one of those guys that makes the feeling in the group feel right and as long as that appetite stays, I’m sure we will keep moving in the right direction regarding that.”

Ireland beat Italy 50-17 in Dublin 18 weeks ago in a rescheduled 2020 Six Nations fixture and they are backed to provide Farrell with some breathing space by securing a win in Rome to lift the gloom surrounding their poorest start to the championship in 23 years.  

“We have to go over here with the right attitude,” said Farrell. “A couple of years ago I didn’t feel we got the blend right over there and it came across as sloppy at times. Last year at the Aviva I thought our attitude was spot on and we can hopefully do the same in Rome. 

“I certainly feel that they [Italy] are good enough to stay in the competition long-term because I can see the progress that Franco (Smith) is making with them. They are certainly heading in the right direction. There’s a newish group there that he is starting with which takes some time and he has already seen the fruits of that. They are strong, they are going in the right direction and with different combinations that take time to gel, they are only going to get better.”

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