Sexton fit to face Italy
Johnny Sexton has beaten his thumb ligament problem in time to face Italy in the RBS 6 Nations in Dublin on Saturday.
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The Racing Metro fly-half has been named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland starting line-up to face the Azzurri in the penultimate round of Six Nations action.
Ulster's Iain Henderson replaces Peter O'Mahony at blindside flanker to win his ninth cap, in the one change to the side that lost out 13-10 to England at Twickenham.
Munster captain O'Mahony has battled hamstring trouble, and head coach Schmidt will have opted not to risk him against Italy, with a potential title-decider against France looming on March 15.
Sexton damaged thumb ligaments in Ireland's slender England defeat on February 22.
Racing Metro last week predicted the 28-year-old would be sidelined between 10 days and six weeks, throwing his Six Nations into doubt but Ireland bosses quickly clarified that suggestion, backing the former Leinster playmaker to find fitness in time to face Italy.
Ireland's assistant coach John Plumtree admitted Sexton had to prove his fitness in Thursday's training session, through "grappling and tackling".
But the British and Irish Lions outside-half came through Ireland's Thursday session unscathed, and is now ready for action at the weekend.
Former captain Brian O'Driscoll will set a new world-record for Test appearances, taking his tally to 140 with his eight Lions bows included.
The Leinster stalwart will surpass former Australia scrum-half George Gregan's total of 139 against Italy, already having eclipsed Ronan O'Gara's previous Ireland record of 128.
Seven of Ireland's eight replacements hail from Leinster, the province Schmidt coached before stepping up to Ireland duty last summer.
Schmidt said he had no qualms about selecting Sexton, who has made a full recovery from his thumb issue.
"It was a sprained thumb, he finished the (England) game," said Schmidt, shrugging off the confusion over Sexton's fitness with Racing Metro.
"There was bruising, and it's gone.
"Look, I think one of the things is there's a bit of distance.
"There were some discussions with (Racing coach) Laurent Labit who was not in the country.
"Racing have been pretty good value, they understand Johnny's a pretty important shared resource."
Schmidt revealed Munster skipper O'Mahony was unable to train fully on Thursday, leading to his omission for the Italy clash.
"If this was the last game of the Six Nations we might have risked Peter," said Schmidt, backing the abrasive loose-forward to be fit for the final Six Nations clash against France.
"But there was a risk.
"He didn't train today, and that was the difference.
"If he'd trained fully we would have included him but he wasn't able.
"I'd be really confident for him about Paris next week."
Schmidt hailed 22-year-old Henderson's impressive cameo off the bench against England, backing him to shine from the off this weekend.
"He's in good shape, he's a good athlete, and we felt he made quite an impact when he came on against England," said Schmidt.
"He's got a really good future at both international and the provincial scene.
"There was a decent temptation to make a few more changes.
"We think there are players out there who have earned an opportunity, but we have to balance that with continuity that we've had.
"Some players had a weekend off last week with their provinces, and if they miss two weekends it wouldn't be the best preparation for France.
"I think the team we have selected reflects the respect we have for Italy."
Ireland team: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster, capt); I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster).