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Rugby: Favourites? It's a lot for the Irish to live up to...

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

As, one by one, the Ireland players rolled out through the fog of Carton House and on to Dublin city centre for the last time in 2014, they passed the Christmas tree being erected on the lawn. It was a gentle reminder that tomorrow marks the end of an international year of real progress, but good results have brought with them an added pressure.

Both clashes against southern hemisphere opposition sold out quickly and the surprisingly comprehensive win over South Africa has heightened the sense of belief in what Joe Schmidt, his coaches and their team are doing.

The bookies are buying in too, moving the Six Nations champions into the favourites bracket for Saturday's clash with Australia.

With the World Cup less than a year away, Ireland are European champions and the nation is beginning to get excited.

Ireland have been here before and it didn't go well, but the New Zealander with his hand at the tiller wants his team to embrace it.

"There's a point in time where hopefully that extraneous kind of pressure gets superseded by an internal belief and an internal focus on what you are looking to achieve," Schmidt said.

"Hopefully, that is the way the balance falls. I have no doubt that we are feeling more pressure this week.

"I'm not sure you can shield a team from the public eye and expectation because in the end they live in amongst it; their family and friends are a part of it, they come under the same sort of expectation and maybe pass it on. They are aware of the expectations."

Can it be a good thing?

"I'd like to think it's no harm," Schmidt continued. "We can buffer ourselves with an internal belief and focus on what we feel we need to achieve to win the game, not be distracted by it.

"We can even be motivated by it. The fear factor exists in all of us because we don't want to let people down.

"We know that this game has been sold out for a long time, that the crowd want to support the team, they want the team to be accurate and physical enough that they merit support.

"The players are really aware of that and I guess there is that motivation factor, there is that level of anxiety that is positive and when it gets beyond that positive point it can start to manifest itself in some pretty negative anxiety. Hopefully that is not the case."

As expected, Schmidt picked his most experienced possible side for the final game of the year, bringing Rory Best back into the front-row and partnering Robbie Henshaw with Gordon D'Arcy.

This, he conceded, was the last window available before the World Cup for experimentation.

"We actually selected three teams (beforehand), because we didn't want too much fatigue and wanted to offer some opportunity," he said.

"The Six Nations is not a place to experiment. Then, we've got four lead-in games to the World Cup, which is not a place to experiment, so if we were going to try out different combinations, these were the three games that we really had that opportunity, and we've tried to avail of that opportunity as best we can."

Best brings the number of players used this November to 34, but the key to Saturday is the performance and the result will look after itself.

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