Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell says the Irish players are enjoying being the number one ranked team in the world going into the Six Nations, but they know their lofty position is irrelevant to the outcome in Cardiff.
Wales captain Ken Owens believes Ireland are “favourites” going into today’s clash at the Principality Stadium today, and according to O’Connell the Irish players are comfortable in their position as the top of charts.
“They know we’ve a bit of form coming in. They know Wales struggled a little bit in the Autumn. They know that Gats (Warren Gatland) is going to make them better, no doubt about it. They know how good they have to be to be in with a chance of winning the game. It’s just become an irrelevance, but I think they enjoy being world number one. They enjoy seeing the fruits of their labour,” O’Connell said yesterday in Cardiff.
“We ask them to do a lot of things to put them in a position to be able to play well and they’ve managed to do it now on quite a few occasions. New Zealand was fantastic, the Autumn wasn’t amazing but they figured things out so it’s good to see them getting the fruits of their labour. But it’s so irrelevant to them. They know it’s irrelevant.”
O’Connell is backing Finlay Bealham to handle what’s coming his way from the Wales pack. Bealham – who has 27 Ireland caps – starts his first Six Nations game after Tadhg Furlong was ruled out with a calf problem.
“Very confident,” said the Munster legend. “He scored a hat-trick two weeks ago so if we could get another one of those it would be great! He’s figured a lot of things out, Finlay, over the last two or three years in terms of what he needs to deliver, what he’s good at delivering and he’s been excellent for us. He’s been brilliant for us in terms of how he prepares, how he trains, how he’s been playing for Connacht. We’ve no doubt he’ll play well.”
Johnny Sexton and the rest of the Ireland squad trained at the Principality Stadium yesterday after spending the past week in the Algarve.
O’Connell praised Sexton’s back-up, Ross Byrne, for fighting his way back into the Ireland squad. “It’s one of the brilliant things about the competition in the squad is that I suppose Ross hasn’t been in for a little while but Andy (Farrell) doesn’t rule anyone out. He’s looking for guys that can play well but he’s looking for guys also that can show a bit of steel.
“He’s playing brilliant rugby with Leinster, he was excellent when he came in for us in the autumn and he has a lovely calmness in how he goes about what he does. Obviously, we’ve a good few Leinster players in the squad as well, he has that familiarity with other guys which is important. It’s a credit to him that he’s managed to fight his way back in.”
Ireland have lost in Cardiff on the last four occasions that they’ve played Wales in the Six Nations.
“It’s important we play really well, that’s the big thing. We went to the Stade de France last year and while when I think of that game, I can think of a load of brilliant things we did, I can think of a load of things where we drifted away from our game a little bit and that was frustrating. It’s important that we don’t do that, it’s important that we be ourselves and that we play our game well.”
O’Connell confirmed that Munster prop Roman Salanoa joins up with the Ireland squad as cover for Furlong, who is “progressing well”.
The former Ireland lock also believes that Warren Gatland can have an immediate impact in his second coming as Wales head coach.
“I think one of the most important things in a physical game is having the clarity on how you’re going to play the game so that you can be physical when you do play it and that’s one of the strengths that Warren Gatland’s teams have,” O’Connell added.