Andy Farrell says Garry Ringrose is an Ireland captain in-waiting, as the centre prepares to win his 50th cap on Saturday against Italy.

The Leinster man will bring up his half-century of Test appearances in the 13 shirt, starting outside the returning Bundee Aki in midfield for the Round 3 meeting with Italy in the Guinness Six Nations at Stadio Olimpico (live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player).

The 28-year-old has been one of Ireland's key players in their run to number one in the world, while he has also emerged as a leader at his province, regularly captaining the side this season in the absence of Johnny Sexton.

And while it's James Ryan who will take over captaincy this weekend with Sexton out injured, the head coach says it's only a matter of time before Ringrose gets that honour.

"I think we're very lucky, it's well documented, as far as our leadership group and the growth of them [is concerned]," Farrell said.

"I feel we’re in a great place that we would be more than happy for a handful of players to captain the side. James [Ryan] is the lucky one this weekend who is able to do that.

"But Garry Ringrose is an exceptional leader. I’m sure that he’ll be captain of Ireland one day."

And the head coach says Ringrose is unlucky not to have reached his 50th cap sooner.

"It's a special moment. It was special for us all to be involved with three lads a few weeks ago and it was a great occasion for them so there's no-one more deserving than Garry.

"He's had a few injuries in the last few years that have probably taken a few caps away from him but to be able to do it at the age he has as well as losing those games says a lot about the type of player that he is.

"He's in top form right now and he's only going to get better."

Farrell has made six changes to his side for the trip to Rome, with Ross Byrne, Iain Henderson and Rónan Kelleher coming in for Sexton, Tadhg Beirne and Rob Herring after they picked up injuries in the win against France.

Craig Casey, Bundee Aki and Jack Conan also get rotated in, with Conor Murray, Stuart McCloskey and Peter O'Mahony moving to the bench.

"They have earned the right to start and from what we have seen so far, it's only a few days to the game I know, but from what we have seen so far, it’s been a good start to the week. Preparation has been great and yeah, they seem ready for it.

And despite changing more than a third of his starting line-up for the meeting with a dangerous Italian side, Farrell is confident they won't lose any continuity from their opening two wins.

"We have been together for a good few weeks now, so people are certainly up to speed. People wouldn’t have been selected if they weren’t in the right place.

"So, we’re not just turning things around for the sake of it, we are turning things around because we think it’s a strong side for us going forward, for this game and for the future as well."

"I don’t think there are that many changes, to be fair. I mean, you look at the bench, it’s people who have come on and earned the right to get a start spot because of the performances that they’ve had.

"Again, the lads that have come in for the first time in this competition have been with us for four weeks. So, the reality is, this is our third game of the competition and we expect it to be our best performance of the competition. That’s how it should be and that’s what we are aiming for."

Casey and Byrne (above) both make their first Six Nations starts at Stadio Olimpico, having impressed in their appearances off the bench in the opening wins against Wales and France.

And Farrell says they're deserving of the chance to lead the attack from the start.

"He [Byrne] has been great. He has earned the right to start, earned the right to run the team and transfer everything that we have seen in training to a performance that’s got authority and takes his team with him."

"They have earned the right to start and from what we have seen so far, it’s only a few days to the game I know, but from what we have seen so far, it’s been a good start to the week. Preparation has been great and yeah, they seem ready for it.

"We have full respect for Italy. But having said that, it is about us, it’s about us and our performance and making sure we improve in a few areas that we want to and get something out of this game that we’re chasing, because we obviously want to do well in this competition.

"But Italy are obviously having that win at home and it’s a big scalp, so we know the emotion that they’ve always had, but the skill that they’ve put in with that now makes them a serious threat to us, so we’re aware of that, and our preparation says so," he added.

Listen to the RTÉ Rugby podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Watch live coverage of Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.15pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, follow our live blog on RTÉ.ie/Sport and the RTÉ News app, or listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1.

Watch live coverage of France v Scotland (Sunday, 3pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.