Lowe made a try-scoring debut against Wales in November after the New Zealander qualified for Ireland on a three-year residency. The former Chiefs winger struggled more in the loss to England the following week then injured his groin in training and hasn’t played since.
He was selected on Friday (Saturday NZ time) ahead of Jordan Larmour, who was in the reserves after missing the autumn tests with a dislocated shoulder.
“James is a great player who is right for this game,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said. “He has been in great form in training.”
The centres were Garry Ringrose, recovered from a broken jaw against Italy in October, and Leinster team-mate Robbie Henshaw, who beat out Bundee Aki. Ringrose and Henshaw start together for the first time since the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Flanker Josh van der Flier was given a 29th cap ahead of Will Connors after No 8 Caelan Doris was ruled out this week with concussion symptoms. CJ Stander was moved to No 8.
“Josh has a fantastic running game; he made some brilliant impacts for us in the autumn,” Farrell said. “We feel his all-round game makes him the one to go for, for us this weekend.”
Tadhg Beirne will play his 10th test, partnering James Ryan at lock, because a knee injury has kept Iain Henderson sidelined since the Autumn Nations Cup. Henderson made the reserves.
Tadhg Furlong played his first rugby in 11 months last weekend in a 40-minute shift for Leinster to be the reserve tighthead prop for Andrew Porter.
Meanwhile, Wales gave flanker Dan Lydiate his first start since November 2018 and will feature in an all-British Lions back row beside Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.
Lydiate was the surprise pick in the Wales squad last month after Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham were employed in the autumn. Josh Navidi, who missed the autumn tests while recuperating from concussion, was in the reserves.
“Dan is a form player in club rugby,” Wales coach Wayne Pivac said. “He deserves a start. He will bring a lot of experience and he is a hard-nosed player. He is what we need in round one.”
Hooker Ken Owens was back after missing the autumn tests with a shoulder injury, and captain Alun Wyn Jones is fit to play his first match since damaging knee ligaments nearly nine weeks ago.
Tomos Williams, the starting halfback a year ago, will be passing to Dan Biggar again after recovering from shoulder surgery in August.
With Jonathan Davies injured, George North was at centre again, outside Johnny Williams, and Louis Rees-Zammit on the right wing where North patrolled in most of his 98 tests. North was in the 13 jersey in Wales' last game, the Autumn Nations Cup playoff win against Italy two months ago.
“George did well there in the Italian game. He is comfortable at 13, and we are comfortable with him there,” Pivac said.
Hallam Amos was on the left wing after Josh Adams was dropped for breaking lockdown rules. Adams trained with the squad before the breach became known on Tuesday but all of the Wales players tested negative for Covid-19 on Thursday.
AT A GLANCE
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams, Hallam Amos, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (c), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Porter, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.