ANDY FARRELL says Ireland must be at their best to get their Guinness Six Nations campaign off to a winning start in Cardiff on Saturday.
The head coach named his team at the squad’s Portuguese base this lunchtime before heading to Faro Airport to catch a flight to Wales.
Despite losing Tadhg Furlong to injury, the coach was upbeat about the team’s chances at a venue where they haven’t won a competitive game since 2013.
"It doesn't really get any tougher than Wales first up,” he said.
"Everyone has spoke over the last two weeks about the record. My record's not great there either.
"Thinking back, I lost there for Saracens (the Anglo-Welsh Cup defeat to Ospreys in 2008) and I actually played a rugby league game (the 2004 Challenge Cup final) there and lost there as well.
"So we know that it's a really tough place to go, but that's where we want to be.
"We want to challenge ourselves.
"What I would say is that we judge ourselves on our preparation and our preparation has been top-drawer. It's as good as I've seen it in regards to getting ready for any type of competition.
"Hopefully, that can continue over the next couple of days preparation-wise and can translate into a performance."
Losing Furlong is a blow, but Farrell has prided himself on readying this Ireland team for any eventuality.
Connacht’s Bealham has 27 caps to his name and scored a hat-trick of tries in his most recent provincial game, but he’s only started four Tests for Ireland against Canada, United States, Georgia and Japan and Saturday will be the biggest game of his career.
“He's been playing good rugby for a good while now, but coming back from the autumn, or any camp he's been in with us, he's had that trust,” Farrell said.
"He's a massive personality within our squad, he's very popular, but coming out of the autumn and how that translates, going back to Connacht and his performances since then has been top drawer.”
Furlong is expected to be fit to face France next week, while Farrell welcomed the decision of the Welsh set-up to close the Principality Stadium roof for the game.
"It's great," he said.
"It's a fantastic stadium.
"We've been there before when it's closed and there's no atmosphere like it. It's fantastic.
"It can only be good for us. We have to agree with the roof being closed. We wanted it closed as well to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey."
Farrell knows Wales coach Warren Gatland well from working with him on two Lions tours and he raised an eyebrow when the New Zealander’s comments that all the pressure is on Ireland this week as he makes his return to the Cardiff coaches’ box.
"I don't know about a 'free shot'. A free shot in Test match rugby? Where do you get them from? We'd love to be able to buy one of those. Maybe I'll buy him a free shot after the game,” he said with a smile.
“But there's absolutely no doubt that Warren will expect his side to win, and so do I, I expect our side to win. His past record shows what he's about in this competition.
"Finding a way to win has always been key to those teams, and we're very aware of that.”
If things are close, replacement out-half Ross Byrne could have a big role as he backs up Johnny Sexton, who is playing just his second game in 13 weeks as he returns after a facial injury.
The Leinster out-half, who kicked the winning penalty against Australia, was chosen ahead of Jack Crowley and Farrell has been impressed with what he’s brought to the set-up.
"Just training really,” he said of the decision.
"Just how he's gone about his business, and he's continued like we knew he would do, regarding how he's played for Leinster.
"The ownership, the authority that he's got within his game, and the ownership of the plan going forward. When you have authority like that, there tends to be a lot of trust around you. He's had a good 12 days with us.”