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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell says he will keep picking Jonathan Sexton as long as the 35-year old maintains his hunger to be involved.

The captain has been restored to the Ireland starting XV for Saturday's clash with Italy in Rome, having missed the defeat to France with a head injury.

Sexton raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he suggested he may not be around for the entire 2023 Rugby World Cup cycle.

It's led some to question whether it's healthy for Farrell to rely so heavily on a player who might not be available to him in two-years' time.

After naming his team to face the Azzurri, Farrell was asked if he was desperate for Sexton to stay.

"Desperate?!, Farrell replied, "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's 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'll keep moving in the right direction."

Top of the class

As Sexton zeroes in on his 97th international cap, Craig Casey is still waiting for his first.

The Munster scrum-half has again been named among the replacements for Saturday's game in Rome.

Casey looked likely to be handed his first cap a fortnight ago, but was an unused substitute in the 15-13 loss to France at the Aviva.

But Farrell has been impressed with how the 21-year Limerick native has responded to that disappointment.

"He's been great," Farrel said, "He's like a sponge.

"He's at the front of his class with his notepad the whole time, taking absolutely everything in.

"His attitude - like I've been saying over the last couple of weeks - is infectious.

"I was very impressed with his mature attitude, in the sense that, obviously he would have been upset - and rightly so - at not getting any minutes in what he thought was going to be his debut against France.

"But then he goes back to Munster, and dusts himself down, and plays really well in poor conditions in Edinburgh.

"Obviously you can't promise anything in this world, especially in international sport, but if he gets his chance he'll certainly be ready."

With James Ryan's return to full fitness, Farrell has moved the puzzle pieces round in the pack.

Ryan will form a second-row partnership with Iain Henderson, while Tadhg Beirne - the only lock to start both Six Nations games this term - moves to blindside flanker.

"Well he's been playing really well," Farrell said of the move, "Whether it be in the second row, or at 6 he's been playing well and deserves his chance again in the starting side.

"He adds on both sides of the ball, but set-piece wise - along with James Ryan and Iain Henderson - the three of them have been pretty strong in the lineout as well."

SIX NATIONS SHOW | Episode 3 | Ian McKinley and Mike McCarthy

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Andy Farrell CRAIG CASEY Iain Henderson Ireland Italy James Ryan Jonathan Sexton Ronan Kelleher Six Nations Tadhg Beirne

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