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Irish need to conquer fear factor, says Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

There was always the chance that this game would feel like the warm-up act before the headliner and the way this Six Nations has panned out, that is certainly the case in the eyes of plenty.

With Ireland the only side in this Championship still harbouring hopes of a Grand Slam, and the mouth-watering prospect of clinching one on English soil on St Patrick's Day, today's visit from Scotland (2.15pm) is one that some would seemingly like to just get out of the way.

Quite apart from the reality that, should results go their way, today could end with just Ireland's fourth title since 1985, captain Rory Best says that those already feeling that anything other than a clean sweep will be a disappointment are not within the four walls of the side's changing room in the Aviva Stadium.

"For us it's about the challenge that Scotland pose," said the 35-year-old of the side who, having started with a whimper against Wales, have accounted for France and England since.

"If you look back at just under two weeks ago how they played against England, that's not a one-off.

"If you look at how they've been evolving since last summer, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn, France and England now, they've put together some very, very good performances.

"So for us it's about making sure we perform, play well and get the result.

"And whatever comes, comes. But we know it's about our preparation to perform.

"It is about trying to get better with each performance."

Best is one of just two players in the Ireland squad who know what it's like to secure the Holy Grail in this Championship having been part of the side that won the Grand Slam in Cardiff nine years ago.

While plenty of his team-mates from that era, including Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, have said the ultimate prize will already be on their minds, Best bats away the notion.

"Honestly, I think the excitement is about this game," he said. "What makes it exciting is the way that Scotland played two weeks ago because you get a whole mix of emotions when you play international rugby.

"There's the pride of representing your country, there's the camaraderie you have and the craic you have leading up to it, there are the nerves, there's the fear factor and they all mix together for what is international rugby and it's a roller coaster of emotions.

"What Scotland have done over the last while, and especially two weeks ago, has added to that little bit of fear factor because you know if you don't perform, they will, and you expect them to play at a certain level.

"If we don't play to our best there is a good chance we could lose this game. That is effectively part of the thing which drives you on."

Just like when derailing England's own Grand Slam hopes two weeks ago, Gregor Townsend (left) and his men have done their best work in Murrayfield and indeed have a wretched away record.

Scotland have won just twice outside of Rome and Edinburgh since the Five Nations became Six in 2000. Their last victory in Dublin came at Croke Park in 2010, and their winless run in what is now the Aviva Stadium dates all the way back to 1998.

It's part of a wider trend in this Championship, bucked this season only by Ireland in Paris and, again, those travelling to Rome.

In light of all this, it was interesting to see that it was only Best and his Ireland side at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, with Scotland undergoing their usual captain's run back in Edinburgh before making their way to Dublin.

"It's entirely up to them," said Best. "They probably feel like they can get their plays done and that last bit of fine-tuning before they get on the flight.

"Wales did their captain's run in UCD or somewhere, we'll go to Twickenham next Friday, but everyone does it differently.

"All we can control is our preparation. We know they will turn up with an 'A' game, because of the way they have been building.

"We need to make sure we have our 'A' game and can better theirs.

"I think when you look at that first game in Cardiff, the squad they've named now, there's been a lot of changes, a lot of very important people come back in.

"It'd be a bit rich if I sat up here and said you can't be caught cold at the start of a Championship, it happened to us 12 months ago.

"We don't focus on home or away records, we focus on the threats. When we do analysis we don't look at the stadium we look at players, and moves."

With the usual disclaimer regarding what could occur should anything happen to Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray in the early stages, this is a game Ireland should win by a similar margin to that against Wales two weeks ago. Scotland have their threats but their away record is woeful and little can be made of any impressive recent performances until they do it on the road.

Belfast Telegraph

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