Andy Farrell believes Jacob Stockdale has “all the attributes” to thrive at full-back for Ireland.
Head coach Farrell has selected Ulster flyer Stockdale in the 15 shirt for Ireland’s rearranged Six Nations clash with Italy in Dublin on Saturday.
Stockdale has won the nod at the foot of the backline, with Leinster’s in-form Hugo Keenan making his debut on the wing instead.
Rob Kearney’s retirement leaves the long-term full-back berth up for grabs while James Lowe will add competition when he qualifies next month, with Jordan Larmour out for up to 16 months with a dislocated shoulder.
Ireland boss Farrell has handed Stockdale an early chance at first refusal in the role, and has backed the 24-year-old to shine against the Azzurri.
“We’ve obviously had quite a few sessions now, so we’ve looked at different combinations,” said Farrell.
“And we’ve been very impressed with Jacob, I think he’s learning the trade pretty quickly there, in the backfield.
“He’s learning how to adapt and get himself stronger in that position.
“We think he’s got all the attributes to push forward in that position, and of course he’s got other elements of his game that he needs to keep pushing forward.
“With Jacob, what you don’t see on the wing from time to time is his skill level; he’s got great vision, he’s able to see things and he’s got good hands as well.
“He hits a brilliant line and not always do you get to do that from the wing, so hopefully we can get him involved as much as we possibly can.
“And also he’s a great option with the left boot at the back.”
Leinster duo Keenan and flanker Will Connors will make their Test debuts at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, with the Italy clash finally taking place seven months after initially scheduled.
The uncapped Ed Byrne and scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park are also in line for their Test debuts off the bench.
Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose have fought off the intense competition at centre to forge Ireland’s midfield duo, while Conor Murray has kept his place at nine.
Johnny Sexton is fit to captain head coach Andy Farrell’s team from fly-half, with the 35-year-old having shaken off recent hamstring troubles.
“We’ve had a few days together to see how they fit into new systems and pressures of international rugby, being able to adapt quickly,” said Farrell.
“Will’s been involved with us before, he’s been chomping at the bit for a while. He’s had a seven-month break to think about that and he’s come back in pretty good form. So we’re excited to see him.
“And Hugo has had a great start after lockdown, he’s an exciting player that can play in a variety of different ways. And they are both ready to go.”
Farrell kept his Ireland players guessing on his team selection until Wednesday morning, revealing he wants to keep his players’ focus as he bids to forge a new era.
“We’ve got to be adaptable, in our game when we’re out there, you don’t know what injuries are going to occur during a game,” said Farrell.
“But we’ve also got to make sure through training that everyone’s coping with the pressures of training.
“We like to throw different combinations in, to have a look at combinations for the future as well.
“We’ve had a great session this morning after the team was announced.
“Keeping people on their toes, and keep an eye on things pushing forward as well, that’s the reason for the selection today.”
Asked why Murray and Sexton continue their long-term half-back partnership, Farrell added: “Well, just because of how in sync they are and how they adapt their game with the rest of the backline, and the rest of the team that’s in front of them.
“They’re generals of the game and they’ve got the authority to play the way that we want to.”