FAVOURITISM has not sat comfortably on Irish rugby shoulders – no matter how broad – in the past with the men from the Emerald Isle traditionally at their most vulnerable when the hype surrounding them hits fever point.
However, the current group of green-shirted heroes appear to be bucking the trend and enjoying the challenge of being the hunted rather than the hunters. Indeed, Joe Schmidt’s men seem to be thriving on the growing expectation that this squad of players has both the mental and physical attributes capable of upsetting the Southern Hemisphere giants on the other side of the globe and claiming a first Webb Ellis Cup.
Their 11 wins from 12 Tests in 2018 confirmed the Irish as the second best team in the world rankings. A successful Autumn campaign, capped by an impressive victory over New Zealand, brought suggestions from many that it is they, and not the reigning world champions, who are currently the best team on the planet. First of all, however, there is the important matter of attempting to retain their Six Nations title and again be crowned Northern Hemisphere kings.
Captain Rory Best insists the easiest way to prevent the hype from enveloping his side is to ignore it.
The Ulster and Lions hooker, 36, says: “It’s all about the internal pressure and getting used to winning and expecting to win. We’ve been taught that when you prepare well it gives you the best opportunity to perform well.
“You can’t get away from all the nice things being said about us. We all spend time at home with family and friends plus we do media work. But, ultimately,it is about the expectation we put on ourselves both as a team and as individuals.
“The secret is to put yourself in the best position to succeed. We know that it is preparation that wins games and not what people think might happen. We have set a certain standard among the group over the last couple of years.
“We also make sure that what happened last year or the year before has absolutely no effect on how we approach certain games or a new tournament. When this team performs at it’s best we are a very tough team to beat.
“We felt we could win the Six Nations last year. Just because it’s being shouted a little bit louder from external sources it doesn’t change what we expect from each other.”
The confidence oozing from the Irish camp as they prepare to start the latest Six Nations campaign by hosting England at the Aviva Stadium, is fuelled both by their outstanding run of results and also by the success of their clubs in Europe.
Ulster, Leinster and Munster are in the Champions Cup quarter-finals and Connacht are in the Challenge Cup quarter final.
Best adds: “The fact we have four provinces in the knock-out stages in Europe gives us confidence. All the players from those teams were congratulated by the management when we met up on Sunday night.
“However, that was where it ended. Because from the moment we get together it doesn’t matter what club jersey you wear. The only thing that matters is who pulls on that jersey next Saturday in Dublin and how quickly we can get up to speed.”
With head coach Joe Schmidt handing over to Andy Farrell after the World Cup, Ireland’s players have an extra incentive to fly off to Japan with the Six Nations trophy still firmly in their grasp.
Schmidt has performed wonders with three Championships in five years with last March’s glorious Grand Slam the pinnacle.
Ireland will have to win the title the hard way, three trips away from home to Scotland, Italy and Wales with England and France visiting Dublin.
Another Six Nations would add to Schmidt’s tremendous success story with a country that has taken the likeable Kiwi to their sporting heart, but surely a World Cup would be the ultimate send-off?
Schmidt, 53, side steps the thought insisting: “People keep asking me about the World Cup and how Ireland might do, and whether we can win it.
“But I can’t answer them because it’s still a relatively long way away. And there’s so many more games to play, training sessions to finish… so many things can happen.
“Right now the players and I just care about what happens against England. It would be wrong to suggest this or that about what will happen in the Six Nations let alone World Cup. The biggest danger for any side is to get ahead of itself. We are not about to do that.”
Clearly the firm favourites for the 2019 Six Nations do not intent to relinquish the trophy without a fight.
GARY FITZGERALD / Photo: Getty Images
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