Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has decided upon his successor as captain to Paul O’Connell after appointing Ulster hooker Rory Best as the side’s new leader.
Following a heartbreaking retirement from international duty for the former Munster man O’Connell at last year’s Rugby World Cup, 33-year-old Best has now been given the responsibility to help extend Ireland’s back-to-back Six Nations titles as Schmidt announced four uncapped players in his 35-man squad.
And despite a large majority of the Rugby World Cup squad remaining in the setup Ireland will have to make do without Leinster duo Cian Healy and Mike Ross, as well as Ulster flanker Chris Henry who have all been omitted due to injury, but could return following the first two fixtures.
The race for the captaincy has been hotly debated following O’Connell’s retirement as Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Jonny Sexton were all considered for the role, however, the 50-year-old head coach decided to opt for his most experienced squad member in Best to take the role as he has previously captained his nation on four occasions during his 89 caps.
However, as reported by the BBC, despite Heaslip captaining his nation on 12 occasions, including their World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Best was favourite for the position and his province’s fine form in Europe this season has not only benefitted the hooker in his promotion, but also his teammates as wing Andrew Trimble, centre Luke Marshall and hooker Rob Herring all earned recalls to the national setup.
Ireland will open their Six Nations title defence at home to Wales in the Aviva Stadium on February 7, followed by an away game to a new-look French side lead by Guy Noves.
Ireland squad for RBS Six Nations:
Forwards: Rory Best (Ulster, captain), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), James Cronin (Munster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Nathan White (Connacht), Marty Moore (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Backs: Conor Murray (Munster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Kieron Marmion (Connacht), Jonny Sexton (Leinster), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Jared Payne (Ulster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster), Dave Kearney (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster).