MAYNOOTH – Veteran flank Sean O’Brien has been omitted from the Ireland squad for the Six Nations clash with France on Sunday, and replaced by Leinster teammate Josh van der Flier in the starting line-up.
For O’Brien, it is the first time for years under both Joe Schmidt and his predecessor Declan Kidney that he has not made the squad when fully fit.
Only two years ago, he was one of the stand-out players in the drawn series between the British and Irish Lions and world champions New Zealand.
“Josh van der Flier has had less time than Sean and has not let us down, so it is a perfect opportunity to put him back in there he is very keen and raring to go,” Schmidt said.
Coincidentally, the 32-year-old, known as the ‘Tullow Tank’ for his bullocking runs – who would have many more than 55 caps to his name but for a series of injuries – will join up with Kidney at English side London Irish next season.
Van der Flier is one of six changes to the scrum Schmidt has made from the unimpressive 26-16 win over Italy a fortnight ago.
South Africa-born No 8 CJ Stander returns after recovering from the fractured cheekbone and eye socket he suffered in the opening defeat by England, which ended their hopes of successive Grand Slams.
Grizzled hooker Rory Best returns as expected to captain the side – fellow veteran Cian Healy starts too in place of Dave Kilcoyne – while the second row sees the proven duo of Iain Henderson and James Ryan replace Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux.
Schmidt – who is taking charge of his penultimate Six Nations match as he steps down after the World Cup later this year – has made one alteration to the backs bringing back the fit again Garry Ringrose to partner Bundee Aki.
“It will be hard to say goodbye. We have had some great occasions at Lansdowne Road over the years,” he said.
“I mentioned it to my wife yesterday that it would be my final Six Nations home game.”
The Irish still entertain outside hopes of retaining their title after beating Scotland and the Italians – which could come down to their final match against Wales, who are unbeaten ahead of their clash on Saturday with Scotland.
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“We have not been as cohesive as we would like to be in our first three matches, but we are hoping we have a great performance on Sunday,” the coach said on Friday.
They must overcome a French side who beat Scotland last time out, giving a much-needed boost to their battered confidence following a hammering by England at Twickenham.
Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy.
Bench: Niall Scannell, David Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Ultan Dillane, Jack Conan, John Cooney, Jack Carty, Jordan Larmour.