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Tadhg Furlong ruled out for Ireland vs Wales in Six Nations opener; Stuart McCloskey at centre; Johnny Sexton fit to start

Ireland open 2023 Six Nations by travelling to Wales in Cardiff on Saturday (2.15pm); Skipper and playmaker Johnny Sexton fit to start; Stuart McCloskey starts over Bundee Aki at centre; Tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong ruled out due to a calf injury, so Finlay Bealham starts

Image: Tadhg Furlong has been ruled out injured for Ireland's opening Six Nations clash vs Wales in Cardiff

Tadhg Furlong has been ruled out of Ireland's 2023 Six Nations opener vs Wales in Cardiff, in a major blow for Andy Farrell's side.

Furlong, who has only played 36 minutes of rugby since the autumn internationals, has failed to recover from a calf injury, leaving Connacht's Finlay Bealham to start at tighthead prop.

Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey has been named to start, while skipper Johnny Sexton has been passed fit after a cheekbone fracture.

With Robbie Henshaw out due to a wrist injury, McCloskey has been selected ahead of Connacht's Bundee Aki to start alongside Garry Ringrose in midfield, having featured for Ireland heavily in the autumn due to injuries.

Despite being a consistent performer for Ulster over a number of years, Saturday's clash will surprisingly be 30-year-old McCloskey's first Six Nations appearance since his debut vs England at Twickenham in 2016.

Stuart McCloskey
Image: Stuart McCloskey will start for Ireland at inside-centre, with Robbie Henshaw injured and Bundee Aki on the bench

Elsewhere, the availability of Sexton is a boost for head coach Farrell, albeit the fly-half has played a distinct lack of minutes since November.

Hooker Ronan Kelleher has been ruled out, though, with Dan Sheehan starting and Rob Herring named amongst the replacements.

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The back-three sees full-back Hugo Keenan combine with wings Mack Hansen and James Lowe, who edge out Jimmy O'Brien, while Andrew Conway (knee) remains out injured.

Jamison Gibson-Park starts at scrum-half alongside Sexton, while Conor Murray has beaten off competition from his Munster team-mate Craig Casey to be named on the bench.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton
Image: Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has been passed fit to start after recovering from a fractured cheekbone

Loosehead Andrew Porter, lock duo Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan, and back-row trio Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris complete the starting side.

On the bench, Cian Healy has edged Dave Kilcoyne to provide loosehead cover, the inexperienced Tom O'Toole is named as tighthead cover, while Ireland are able to call on the experience of British and Irish Lions Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Murray and Bundee Aki if needed.

16 July 2022; Ireland head coach Andy Farrell before the Steinlager Series match between the New Zealand and Ireland at Sky Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Image: Andy Farrell's side begin the championship with a sticky test away at Wales, in Warren Gatland's first game back at the helm

Leinster's Ross Byrne has been selected to provide fly-half cover ahead of Munster's Jack Crowley.

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexon, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park; 1 Andrew Porter, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Finlay Bealham, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Caelan Doris.

Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tom O'Toole, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Bundee Aki.

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