|Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Ulster, Radio 5 Sports Extra, the BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell says carrying the favourites tag “doesn’t bother” the players nowadays while conceding the squad maybe tried to run away from it during his career.
The Irish head into Saturday’s Six Nations opener with Wales as world number one and fancied to win a first championship since the 2018 Grand Slam.
But O’Connell believes the current squad take all of it in their stride.
“I suppose we talk about it a little bit,” said the former Ireland captain.
“Maybe it’s something that back in my playing day we’d try to run away from.
“These guys, it doesn’t bother them either way. They’re probably happy to be world number one, but more focus on getting better really than remaining world number one.”
Ireland head into this year on the back of a hugely encouraging 2022 that included a Triple Crown win, an historic Test series triumph over the All Blacks in New Zealand and autumn victories over South Africa and Australia.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell this week spoke of how he’s “obsessed” with the continued success of elite sports teams like Manchester City and O’Connell echoed those comments in emphasising the Irish side’s unquenchable thirst for improvement.
“I think you could go back a place or two and improve as a team, and that’s what we’d want,” added the former lock, who won three Six Nations titles during his 13-year Ireland career.
“So even though we’d discuss it the odd time, favouritism and what that means, there is a focus on getting better in the group.
“But with the Irish players, you know, whenever you go around the provinces and chat to them, all their focus is on getting better and improving and how to make the team better.
“There’s a really good leadership group here. You’ll never have cracked the anxiety piece around the big games.
“There’s always a little bit there but they’ve cracked focusing on the performance and I suppose seeing where that leaves us rather than being too worried about winning or losing.”
Ireland will face Wales under the closed roof of the Principality Stadium and O’Connell spoke of how he is relishing the spectacle and noise of the crowd with the 2021 fixture between the sides in Cardiff having been played behind closed doors because of the pandemic.
“It’s an incredible place. We were talking about the warm-up with the choirs singing. The atmosphere is almost building in the warm-up and when the roof is closed then it’s something different.
“We had it last year in France in the Stade de France. It seems a lot of the atmospheres in the autumn were pretty rowdy as well and it’s going to head into the World Cup like that as well.
“It’s a brilliant opportunity and experience for the lads to experience something special.”
O’Connell also feels the return of Warren Gatland as Wales head coach will heighten the anticipation amongst the home crowd.
“I suppose with Warren Gatland back for Wales as well it probably adds to the Welsh crowd’s anticipation.
“It’s a brilliant stadium to play in whether it’s for your province or for you country.
“It’s one of the days of your career that the players have to cherish. It’s only when you’re retired you realise how special it is to go away from home, play for Ireland against Wales in a packed Millennium Stadium.”
On three-time Grand Slam winner Gatland, under whom he played on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2013, O’Connell said: “He brings clarity. I remember one of the things about the 2009 tour – Ian McGeechan was the head coach but Gats was heavily involved as well.
“We had real clarity on how we were going to play very quickly. We probably didn’t have that in 2005 where we were trying to please everyone a little bit whereas Gats and Ian from their time in Wasps probably knew exactly how they wanted to play.
“They were able to get that across to the players quickly. One of the most important things in a physical game is having clarity on how you’re gonna play the game. That’s one of the strengths Warren Gatland’s teams have I feel.”