Howley: Wales can handle the hype
Rob Howley has backed Wales' players to deal with hype and intensity of the kind that surrounds Saturday's RBS 6 Nations showdown against Ireland in Dublin.
The eagerly-awaited Aviva Stadium encounter could shape this season's tournament, with the winners taking a 100 per cent record and potentially irresistible momentum into their third match - Wales host France and Ireland tackle England at Twickenham - later this month.
There is also the background of superstar Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll lining up against a Wales team coached by last year's British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland, who controversially omitted O'Driscoll from his side that crushed Australia 41-16 in a Test series decider.
"The experiences the players have had with Wales and the Lions in big matches means they can deal with intensity and hype and the media," Wales assistant coach Howley said.
"Experienced players become automated, having been there and done it, and I expect that to be the same this weekend.
"'Gats' has been no different this week to any other, experienced and astute, talking to players he feels he needs to speak to and making sure our environment is ready for the players to be the best they can be on Saturday afternoon."
Wales have won three of their last four games against Ireland, including a 2011 World Cup quarter-final, but they flew to Dublin on Thursday knowing that an enormous challenge awaits them.
"Six Nations matches are finals," Howley added. "We have seen in the last Six Nations that sides can gain huge momentum after an opening day victory, and you can also lose the first game and regain momentum.
"Ireland will be buoyed by their performance against Scotland (last weekend), and we were frustrated and disappointed by our second-half in particular against Italy.
"We need to get back on to the front foot. There are technical elements we need to improve on, and we have been working on them this week.
"We have got into a positive mindset through winning, and that gives you confidence and self-belief. Our record in the Six Nations in the last five years is 70 per cent-plus.
"The Ireland game is always pivotal, and it has been close in the last few years, 2-2 in the last four meetings. It is high-octane.
"Both sides like to play rugby, depending on the conditions, and I see no difference this weekend. It will be a tight, cagey affair and territory will be key."
Ireland are lifted by the return of captain Paul O'Connell, who missed the Scotland victory due to a chest infection, while much is being made of a key individual contest between scrum-halves Conor Murray and Mike Phillips, who were Lions colleagues Down Under last summer.
"Most international teams have talismen, like (Sergio) Parisse with Italy. Paul is one of them within the Ireland squad, and we have them in the Wales team," Howley said.
"Conor Murray was a great player on the Lions tour. I have a lot of admiration for him, and I respect his hard work and diligence.
"He was probably number three (scrum-half) going on the tour, but he was up there with the best by the end and made a telling contribution in the Test series and provincial games.
"It will be a challenge for Mike, and he must focus on his game and not get tied up in a duel, focusing on allowing us to play and do what he is good at.
"You are mindful when playing against a nine who has been on a Lions tour with you and might be seen as an equal talent, but Mike must perform his role and not get tangled up in a duel with Murray.
"Mike was caught from a ruck a couple of times by offside players (last Saturday). He takes a step with the ball, but sometimes that is needed depending on the speed of the ball.
"His long-passing game is pretty important to us, and I expect to see more of that this weekend."