O'Connell: Italy will be toughest game physically
Published 02/02/2010 | 05:00
A key plank of Ireland's Grand Slam success last year was a dramatic shift in mindset within a squad whose confidence had crashed through the floor only weeks earlier.
This time a year ago, as they prepared for their opening joust with France, the renewed confidence suffusing throughout the squad transformed the mental landscape.
Instead of hoping they could win, they knew they could win.
Twelve months on, from atop Europe's rugby summit, the view is sweeping, but the onward journey is littered with the ticking time-bombs of other nations eager to be the first to land the first knockout blow to the champions.
Italy, however, don't arrive swathed in boxing metaphors: their primary aims entail engaging in ugly wrestling bouts, from which few emerge without both victory and a variety of aching limbs.
Ireland will be physically tested but such is their exalted status, their mental strength inures them from the upset of the millennium.
"We're probably not a lot different from last year," deflects Paul O'Connell. "Maybe confidence is a lot different now and there's maybe a relaxed confidence about the team now.
"This time a year ago we'd worked hard in the autumn, but really had a poor autumn coming into the Six Nations and we really needed to produce something special and that's what we did.
"So I think we've a lot of confidence and a lot of knowledge of what we're doing now under our belt. We've come a long way I think, in terms of how we're going to play and things we're going to do.
"We're a lot more used to the coaches we have and the way they expect to have things done, so I suppose it leaves us in a position maybe where we haven't as much to do as we did this time last year."
To paraphrase an achingly solemn soccer pundit overheard last weekend, Italy's strength is their, erm, strength.
"The longer they're in the competition, the better they get, particularly up front which is where their real strength is," confirmed O'Connell. "Every year we always say it, it's probably our toughest game physically, that Italy game. It's going to be a very tough one to start off with.
"Last year, I don't think we played that well and I don't think we did the work up-front that we need to do against Italy.
"Set-pieces are very strong for them -- line-out and scrum -- and you really need to work hard and take them on there, and see what happens after that.
"I never felt that game was under control. I remember a few times we went out the back off five-man line-outs early on and really the big thing with Italy is that you need to take them on.
"We always know it's going to be a really tough game and this weekend I'm sure, with both sides not having played together in two or three months, it will be no different.
"But there's no doubt at the weekend that it will be a big forward battle first and foremost, and we need to perform there before the backs can do anything."
The loss of the magnificent Sergio Parisse -- Italy's O'Connell, Heaslip and O'Driscoll rolled into one extraordinary rugby player -- will be hugely significant.
"Yeah, he's a great player and absolutely he's a loss but no team is built around one man and they'll move on the same way we would if we had an injury to one of our top players," acknowledged O'Connell.
"He's a great player and a big loss, but we have to look beyond that and not be too worried about that."
Ireland, however, no longer need worry about the fates of others.