By Ed Elliot, PA
Andy Farrell says Ireland’s preparation for a shot at Guinness Six Nations glory is the best he has ever seen as his side bid to begin the championship with a bang.
Ireland launch their campaign against Wales on Saturday afternoon sitting atop the world rankings and with the pressure of being marginal title favourites ahead of Grand Slam holders France.
With plenty of expectation on his players and a World Cup on the horizon, head coach Farrell believes solid foundations have been laid.
Ready for a showdown under the roof in Cardiff! 🟢#TeamOfUs | #GuinnessSixNations
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 3, 2023
Yet the Englishman insists he is not looking beyond Warren Gatland’s men and a tricky Cardiff opener at the start of a monumental year.
“We judge ourselves on our preparation and our preparation has been top-drawer,” he said.
“It’s been as good as I’ve seen it in regards to getting ready for any type of competition.
“Hopefully that continues, and it can translate into a performance. It doesn’t really get any tougher than Wales first up.”
Asked what message he had given his players going into 2023, he replied: “Honestly? Just Wales. Just Wales. It’s a tough old game, you know?
“We’d love to start this tournament off with a bang but we know how difficult that is. We’ve full concentration on this game.”
Ireland won nine of 11 fixtures in 2022, including clinching a Triple Crown, registering a historic series success in New Zealand and toppling world champions South Africa.
Farrell’s maiden team selection this year contained few surprises, with the injury absence of star prop Tadhg Furlong the main headline and resulting in a rare start for Finlay Bealham.
Our first line up of 2023! 🟢#TeamOfUs | #GuinnessSixNations
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 2, 2023
Former dual-code international Farrell is eager to maintain pressure on first-choice players as he strives to generate fierce competition for places.
“The 23 that get to take the field for the first game, they’re the lucky ones, they’re in the driving seat,” he said.
“There is a good sense of togetherness within the squad but good competition for players is where it should be.
“The other lads are waiting and watching and preparing for a chance. Hopefully they will be ready to take it, if and when needed.”
Although Furlong is expected to be in contention for the second-round clash with France, Ireland have added uncapped Munster prop Roman Salanoa to their group.
Forwards coach Paul O’Connell anticipates a close encounter at the Principality Stadium and hopes Ireland once again come out on the right side of fine margins following narrow autumn wins over the Springboks and Australia.
“It seems in international rugby the top teams have gotten closer and closer over the last number of years and there’s very little between teams,” said O’Connell.
“We had a good autumn, but it could have been a disappointing autumn as well but for a few points here and there. I’ve no doubt tomorrow will be a tight game as well.
“But we’re in a good place, we’ve good clarity on what we’re doing. There’s real good leadership and ownership in the group, so they’re in a good place to put out a good performance.”