Earls set to be the centre of attention

KEITH Earls has been asked to fill the biggest boots in Irish rugby this weekend after being named at second centre on the Ireland team to take on Wales in the opening game of this season’s Six Nations.

With captain Brian O’Driscoll ruled out for the season, Earls has beaten off a host of contenders for the now-famous number 13 shirt.

The Limerick man was Ireland’s top try scorer in the World Cup when he was on the left wing but since returning from injury himself, he has played second centre in Munster’s last three Heineken Cup games.

He was particularly impressive in the win over Northampton and he beats off stiff competition from the likes of Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley to start alongside Gordon D’Arcy in the centre.

In the absence of O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell will captain the side. He will be partnered in the second row by his long-standing colleague Donncha O’Callaghan who has beaten off his Munster colleague Donnacha Ryan for a starting place.

In total there are four Munster men starting - O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Conor Murray and Earls - with three more on the bench - Ryan, the uncapped Peter O’Mahony and Ronan O’Gara, who has lost out in his personal duel with Leinster’s Johnny Sexton.There are also two Limerick men on the bench - the Leinster duo of Sean Cronin and Eoin Reddan.

Earls’ switch the centre opens the door for Ulster’s Andrew Trimble to come into the side and he’s just one of two changes to the Ireland side from the one that faced Wales in the World Cup quarter-final back in October. The other is the selection of Sexton ahead of O’Gara.

Ireland’s game with Wales is at 2.30pm on Sunday and will bring the curtain down on the opening weekend of the competition.

France host Italy on Saturday at 2.30 while the Calcutta Cup game between Scotland and England in Murrayfield is at 5pm.

Ireland team to play Wales:

Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell; Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Fergus McFadden