Paul O'Connell backs Keith Earls to deliver as Ireland captain
Keith Earls is ready to step into Brian O'Driscoll's boots, according to the man who has taken over from the talismanic centre as Ireland captain.
Paul O'Connell yesterday gave Earls his full backing after the 24-year-old was given the daunting task of filling O'Driscoll's No 13 jersey for Sunday's Six Nations opener against Wales at the Aviva Stadium.
Not only is it a huge week for Earls on the field, but off the field he is celebrating the birth of his first child, and O'Connell believes his Munster colleague is ready to embrace the challenge.
"He has a lot more experience now. He had a good World Cup and has been playing well for us (Munster) -- he was excellent against Northampton," said O'Connell.
Earls has not trained with Ireland since last week, when his partner gave birth to a baby girl, but O'Connell, father of a one-year-old son, does not foresee any problems with the centre switching on for Sunday.
Earls' switch to midfield allows in-form Andrew Trimble onto the left wing, with the inclusion of Jonathan Sexton at out-half ahead of Ronan O'Gara the only other change to the side that lost the World Cup quarter-final to the Welsh last October.
The only uncapped player in the match-22 is flanker Peter O'Mahony, who is rewarded for a series of excellent performances for Munster this season.
Meanwhile, Wales have been dealt yet another injury blow with the news that Lions hooker Matthew Rees has been ruled out of their first two games with a calf strain.
Ireland (v Wales) -- R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell(capt); S Ferris, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, T Court, D Ryan, P O'Mahony, E Reddan, R O'Gara, F McFadden.