SEAN O’Brien will step up his return from injury when he starts for the Ireland Wolfhounds against the England Saxons on Friday evening, his first match since September 6.
The flanker has been out of action since Leinster’s opening Pro12 fixture against Glasgow Warriors, after which he underwent a shoulder reconstruction.
The 27-year-old has not played for the Irish senior side since the narrow loss to New Zealand in 2013 and faces competition from Rhys Ruddock for a starting berth against Italy on February 7.
Iain Henderson will start alongside O’Brien for the Wolfhounds after impressing in Ulster’s 26-7 win over Leicester in the Champions Cup, his first match in seven months.
The 22-year-old had hip surgery following Ireland’s tour to Argentina last summer but takes the field in Cork in the second row.
Leinster’s Jack Conan is the only member of the starting XV yet to represent the senior side, an indication of how seriously Ireland are taking the match.
Ian Madigan, who looks set to replace Jonathan Sexton for the match in Rome, starts at fly-half but there is no place in the matchday squad for Ian Keatley.
Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross combine for an all-Leinster front row but the match comes too soon for Cian Healy, another player returning from injury.
Munster fullback Felix Jones captains the side despite the presence of the evergreen Gordon D’Arcy, who will have a midfield battle with Saxons league-convert Sam Burgess.
Ireland Wolfhounds squad to play England Saxons:
15. Felix Jones (c); 14. Fergus McFadden, 13. Keith Earls, 12. Gordon D’Arcy, 11. Luke Fitzgerald; 10. Ian Madigan, 9. Kieran Marmion; 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Richardt Strauss, 3. Mike Ross; 4. Iain Henderson, 5. Mike McCarthy; 6. Dominic Ryan, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. Jack Conan
Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Michael Bent, 18. Nathan White, 19. Robbie Diack, 20. Eoin McKeon, 21. Isaac Boss, 22. Noel Reid, 23. Craig Gilroy