Ireland head coach Andy Farrell believes the appetite of Johnny Sexton “is as strong as ever” after the fit-again fly-half hinted he may retire before the next World Cup.
Influential captain Sexton said on Tuesday that he “might not” be around for the 2023 tournament in France but later clarified it was a “throwaway” comment and he would assess his future year by year.
The 35-year-old, who also revealed he is close to agreeing a new contract with the Irish Rugby Football Union, will return from a head injury to lead his team in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Italy as part of seven changes.
Farrell said: “As long as Johnny keeps on giving to Irish rugby, he’ll keep putting his foot forward to be in the equation, won’t he?
“He feels good at this moment in time, his appetite is as strong as ever.
“He’s certainly one of those guys that makes the feeling in the group feel right and as long as that appetite stays, I’m sure we will keep moving in the right direction regarding that.”
The IRFU last year refrained from entering into contract discussions with players due to financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sexton – who will be 38 by the start of the next World Cup – currently remains among a handful of international players whose existing terms are due to expire this summer.
With talks ongoing, Farrell is relaxed about the situation.
“There is no difficulty from my point of view – and I am sure there is not from Johnny’s point of view as well,” he said.
“Johnny keeps being his bright self during the week and he has certainly been at the forefront of what has been a great week so far.”
Ireland have made their worst start to a Six Nations campaign with defeats by Wales and France.
Farrell has named a revamped front row of Dave Kilcoyne, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong for the trip to Rome, with Sexton, Ryan, flanker Will Connors and wing Jordan Larmour also returning.
Victory for Ireland this weekend would inflict a 30th successive Six Nations defeat on Italy.
The Italians’ woeful run of results has led to increased scrutiny on their future participation in the tournament but Farrell insists they are making sufficient strides forward under head coach Franco Smith to merit inclusion.
“I certainly feel they are good enough to stay in the competition long-term because I can see the progress that Franco is making with them,” said Farrell.
“They are certainly heading in the right direction.
“It’s a newish group that he has started with, which takes some time, and he’s already seeing the fruits of that, so I think they are strong. With different combinations that take time, they’re only going to get better.”
Leinster hooker Kelleher has been rewarded for his try-scoring cameo in the 15-13 defeat by Les Bleus on February 14 with a first Championship start.
Loosehead prop Kilcoyne has won 32 of his 40 caps as a replacement and will start a Test for the first time since the 2019 World Cup pool stage, while tighthead Furlong will begin an international match for the first time in a year.
Larmour is preferred to Keith Earls on the right flank, despite not having started on the wing for his country since September 2019.
Meanwhile, the recall for Ryan who, like Sexton, missed the France defeat due to a head knock suffered on the opening weekend in Cardiff has resulted in Tadhg Beirne switching to blindside flanker in place of Rhys Ruddock, with Connors coming in for Josh Van Der Flier at openside.
Robbie Henshaw – winning his 50th cap – and Garry Ringrose are once again the preferred midfield partnership, while CJ Stander continues in the centre of the back row.
Full-back Hugo Keenan and New Zealand-born wing James Lowe retain their starting spots.
Fly-half Billy Burns, who deputised for Sexton a fortnight ago, is back among the replacements, alongside outgoing front-row trio Rob Herring, Cian Healy and Andrew Porter, uncapped duo Baird and Casey, Earls and Jack Conan.