Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll was among several senior players restored by Declan Kidney to the starting XV when the coach named his side on Tuesday for tomorrow’s Six Nations opener away to Wales in Cardiff.
Also taking the field at the Millennium Stadium are to be fullback Rob Kearney, openside flanker Sean O’Brien and hooker Rory Best.
Together with star center O’Driscoll, they formed a quartet of experienced players who missed the whole of Ireland’s end-of-year international campaign last year through injury.
The 34-year-old O’Driscoll has been captain in 84 of his 120 Ireland Tests.
However, for the first time since replacing Keith Wood as Ireland skipper in 2004, O’Driscoll has been relieved of the captaincy while fit by Kidney, with leadership duties passing to No. 8 Jamie Heaslip instead.
O’Driscoll will be alongside longtime Leinster and Ireland teammate Gordon D’Arcy in midfield, with Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray the halfback duo.
Meanwhile, Kearney is set to form what should be a dynamic back three with wings Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, who both starred in November.
“It was a tight call because there’s so much competition. Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls have been playing well, so it’s testament to the way Craig and Simon have been playing that they’re selected,” Kidney said.
In all there were four changes to the side that beat Argentina by 46-24 last time out, with Chris Henry dropped to the bench as O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony returned to the back row.
Ireland have lost their last three matches against Wales, a run that includes a 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat in New Zealand and a 23-21 reverse on the opening day of last season’s Six Nations.