Ireland's Sexton, Murray to return for Italy game

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray missed Ireland's defeat to France on Sunday through injury. Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Ireland coach Andy Farrell has said he expects captain Johnny Sexton and scrum-half Conor Murray to be available for their Six Nations trip to Rome to face Italy on Feb. 27.

The half-back pairing missed Ireland's 13-15 defeat to France on Sunday through injury with Sexton failing to clear return to play protocols for a head injury and Murray suffering from a hamstring injury.

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While Farrell confirmed the return of his two first-choice picks, he refused to be drawn on whether he would return to his first-choice picks or maintain the pairing of Jamison Gibson Park and Billy Burns who started on Sunday.

"Well, we want to win, you know, we want to win the next three games so we will pick the best side accordingly for each game," he said.

"I thought they [Gibson Park, Burns] did really well.

"I thought their game management was great, especially in the first half, how they got the forwards into the game, keeping their patience, sticking to the plan.

"I thought they were going great and then Ross [Byrne] coming on for Billy, he got himself straight into the game. He obviously kicked a lovely goal and got the backline moving as well at times.

"But I suppose if you were singling anyone out, I thought Jamison was outstanding for 80 minutes. He was well in control, he was calm, he had plenty of energy and he was pretty accurate. Our kicking game was much better."

The Irish Rugby Football Union confirmed on Tuesday it would release 12 players to their provincial bubbles to compete this weekend and retain just a 24-man squad.

Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, Dave Heffernan, Ryan Baird, Ross Byrne, Jack Conan, Craig Casey, Andrew Conway, Shane Daly, Chris Farrell, Stuart McCloskey and Tom O'Toole are now all available to compete in this weekend's PRO 14 action.

The remaining 24 will train on Thursday and Friday before returning for a full camp next week ahead of the Italy game.

"Three victories and that's what we expect of ourselves," Farrell added.

"We'll have to show our character now because obviously Italy are without a win and they are at home so we will need to take that game on full steam ahead.

"Then obviously, as we saw [on Saturday], going to Murrayfield is no easy task at all because they are playing particularly well at this moment in time.

"They were unlucky [against Wales] and the English here for the last game is another chance to get back to the Aviva and hopefully get the right result, what we expect of ourselves here."