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O'Connell ups ante for Ireland

By Gavin Mairs

Paul O'Connell believes Ireland will justify their status as Six Nations favourites thanks to the leadership of Brian O'Driscoll.

Ireland have emerged as the strongest team in Europe after dispatching South Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islanders in a hugely successful autumn series. New Zealand were the only other team to complete a clean sweep from the November internationals and they alone lie above Ireland in Test rugby's pecking order.

With England and France travelling to Croke Park in February, Ireland have a fantastic chance of ending their 22-year search for Six Nations glory. Their tournament opener against Wales in Cardiff could possibly be the toughest assignment but O'Connell is backing his side to live up to the tag of favourites.

And the Munster lock, nominated for the International Rugby Board's player of the year award, believes O'Driscoll's inspirational captaincy is the key to realising their potential.

"We're delighted with the way the month has gone. Three wins from the autumn when you have played two of the biggest teams in the world is fabulous," he said.

"It will be a whole new ball game for the Six Nations. We can win the Six Nations. We have a captain who relishes playing in those circumstances and leading a team in those circumstances and that's exactly what we need.

"We're learning to handle the favourites' tag a lot better. We came from an era of Irish rugby when we enjoyed being the underdogs.

"But Brian is very good at being the type of captain who enjoys leading a team that has high expectations. He does it very well and it's been great for him."

Sunday's 61-17 victory over the Pacific Islanders was the last game at Lansdowne Road before renovation begins in January, Croke Park taking over as the short-term home of Irish rugby.

The 82,500-seater stadium - the fifth biggest in Europe - is a fitting venue for what is considered the best Ireland team of all time and O'Connell admits it will be a dream come true to run out at the impressive Dublin venue.

"It was good to say goodbye to Lansdowne Road with such a big win but now it's time for Croke Park and it will be massive for us to play there. Every Irishman dreams of playing there when they're young. It will be a massive motivating factor for us.

"The more passion and emotion you can bring to your game the better. It will be brilliant for us."

Meanwhile, the Andy Robinson resignation saga ran into a third day after financial discussions remained deadlocked.

Twickenham top brass are still unable to make an announcement about the England head coach's departure - more than 72 hours after his final game in charge.

It is believed Robinson will resign, rather than be sacked, from a post he has filled for the past 22 Test matches. Robinson was involved in talks with Rugby Football Union elite rugby director Rob Andrew on Monday, with six-figure severance pay details top of the agenda. Discussions continued yesterday, although it is not known whether Robinson was involved.

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