Joe Schmidt has made four changes to his Irish side as he seeks to close the gap to leaders England on Gameday 3. As has already been highlighted by the ten Welsh changes made by Warren Gatland for Wales trip to Rome the fixture against Italy does appear to offer up the opportunity to experiment or give tired bodies a rest.


The Irish selectors have opted against widespread change however with the same backline starting as did against Scotland. This may come as something of a surprise given the fact that Johnny Sexton has been very much in the wars so far. Joey Carberry will not be risked due a hamstring injury picked up in training during the week, he might well have started as the game would have offers a great opportunity to start in a competitive fixture in world cup year. All of this means Connacht number 10 Jack Carty is in line to make his test debut, reward for a fine season so far. John Cooney retains his place on the bench and will expect more playing time against the Italians than he has managed in the two previous fixtures. Andrew Conway fills the position on the bench made vacant by an injury to Jordan Larmour. No place in the squad for a fit again Robbie Henshaw after injury and a poor performance at full back against England.


The forwards have seen more of a shuffle Cian Healy, Jack Conan, James Ryan and skipper Rory Best have been given the weekend off. Into the starting 15 come Dave Kilcoyne at loose head and Sean Cronin at hooker. Ultan Dillane gets a chance to impress in the very strong second row department and Ulster’s Jordi Murphy comes into the back row despite not featuring so far this year. A huge boost comes in the form of Ian Henderson returning from injury to take a place on the bench. The Lion seems to have fallen behind Leinster duo James Ryan and Devin Toner in the pecking order and will want to prove a point in the last few weeks of the championship.


Some onlookers have accused Joe Schmidt of not wanting to give too much away in this championship, which of course falls during a world cup year. He has unsurprisingly denied this, stating that the intention prior to the tournament was to win it. He cannot be accused of taking it easy against the Italians, this is a strong Irish squad, one which will expect a bonus point win. There are not many starting berths up for grabs in a team which is very settled but those players on the periphery will at least be trying to seize the opportunity to book themselves a seat on the plane to Japan. Depending on the result in Cardiff on Saturday this match might count for little in terms of winning the championship but it does offer a chance for Joe to assess the state of his squad depth, something Ireland have been lauded for in recent times and which is of huge importance with a World Cup on the horizon.


Written by S Hamilton