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Ireland coach Farrell backs McCloskey with rare Six Nations start

Stuart McCloskey (left) will start against Wales in what is his first Six Nations appearance since his Test debut for Ireland against England in 2016 . ©AFP

Dublin (AFP) - Ulster's Stuart McCloskey will fill the vacuum left by injured centre Robbie Henshaw as world ranked number one side Ireland open their Six Nations campaign against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has kept faith with McCloskey after he featured in all three Autumn Series Tests last November -- the 30-year-old will partner Garry Ringrose with Bundee Aki on the bench.

It will be McCloskey's 10th cap in all and his first appearance in the Six Nations since making his Test debut in February 2016 against England.

"I thought he handled himself pretty well," Farrell said at a press conference in their training camp in Portugal referring to McCloskey's November performances.

"He has been desperate enough to get the opportunities and do well.I think the good thing for us is that there's more in him at this level.

"We're excited to see that."

Johnny Sexton has recovered from the cheekbone injury he suffered last month and will captain the side in what will be his 110th Test.

The 37-year-old fly-half will be partnered at half-back by his Leinster team-mate Jamison Gibson-Park.

'Massive personality'

Sexton's long time Test half-back partner Conor Murray is on the bench with Ross Byrne chosen as back-up fly-half ahead of youngster Jack Crowley.

The latter started their last Test the 13-10 win over Australia in November -- Sexton withdrew after being injured in the warm-up -- but Byrne came on and nailed a match-winning 45 metres penalty with minutes remaining.

"It was just training really, how he (Byrne) has gone about his business, and he has continued like we knew he would do, regarding how he’s played for Leinster," said Farrell.

"The ownership, the authority that he's got within his game, and the ownership of the plan going forward.

"When you have authority like that, there tends to be a lot of trust around you.He's had a good 12 days with us."

Byrne's Leinster team-mate Tadhg Furlong misses out due to a calf injury -- the British and Irish Lions prop has been bedevilled by fitness problems and has played just over half an hour of rugby since the November Tests.

Furlong is replaced by Australia-born Finlay Bealham in the starting line-up with Farrell confident he can do a good job in what will be his 28th Test appearance for his adopted country.

"Finlay deserves it.He's playing very well," said Farrell.

"He's a massive personality within our squad, he's very popular, going back to Connacht and his performances since then has been top-drawer."

Bealham's Connacht team-mate -- and also Australia-born -- Mack Hansen gets the nod on one wing with James Lowe returning on the other having missed the November Tests through injury.

Backrow forward Peter O'Mahony will be hoping for a happier experience on his return to Cardiff where two years ago he was sent off after just 14 minutes -- the Irish put up a gutsy performance to only lose 21-16.

The Irish will start favourites against a Wales side who welcome back Warren Gatland as head coach for a second spell, even though the visitors have lost their last four matches in Cardiff.

Gatland, a master at mind games, has said that the Welsh have a "free hit" against the favourites -- Farrell dismissed that.

"A free shot in Test match rugby?Where do you get them from? We'd love to be able to buy one of those," said Farrell.

"Maybe I'll buy him a free shot after the game," he added smiling.

Team (15-1)

Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony; James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne; Finlay Bealham, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki

Coach: Andy Farrell (ENG)

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