Devin Toner: We won't be caught flat-footed by Italians
Ireland will not be "caught flat-footed" by their RBS 6 Nations favourites tag, according to lock Devin Toner.
Leinster second row Toner believes Ireland are "under no illusions" their tournament opener in Italy on Saturday will be "a lot tougher than people think".
Ireland's 46-7 victory over Italy helped secure the title on points difference last year, but Toner called on Joe Schmidt's side to strike out all designs on retaining the crown this weekend.
Boss Schmidt's readiness to pitch O'Brien back into Test battle after just one run with the Wolfhounds underscores Ireland's sharp focus against a side that failed to register a single win last year.
"They are at their best at the start of the tournament, and at their best at home," said Toner.
"So we're under no illusions that it will be a lot tougher than people think.
"They've got a vast amount of experience and they're very, very passionate at home, so we've got a very tough game ahead of us.
"We'll let everyone else think about points difference and all that, literally our sole focus is getting the win in Rome.
"We know how hard it will be, so that's our sole aim really.
"Personally I don't care about whether we're favourites, I don't think about it at all.
"My sole focus and the team's is the next game.
"If we don't do well in Rome then that's out of the window isn't it?
"Maybe it's not surprising given we won all three games in November, but let them talk: we'll let people say what they want.
"We've just got to get our performance right on Saturday.
"The lads don't take anything for granted these days, the competition is getting tighter and tighter every year and I don't think we'll get caught flat-footed."
Italy's dismal winless run in last year's Six Nations leaves them favourites for the wooden spoon once more, but Ireland are refusing to take the challenge in Rome lightly.
O'Brien's potential return after two consecutive bouts of shoulder surgery would add experience and fire to the back-row, especially if Heaslip misses out.
Toner knows Ireland must shut out the bigger championship picture, but admitted Schmidt's men are still targeting a fast start.
"Our point of view is we've got to go in as good as we can be, we don't want to be feeling our way into things in round three or four," said Toner.
"We want to be hitting the ground running: we want to kick on straight away from the November series.
"We don't want to be struggling in game one and then allowing that to drag into games two and three.
"So we're really looking at this game to nail things down for us.
"We know how Joe (Schmidt) feels: it's always on the next game.
"We came into camp at Christmas, and that was 100 per cent our aim, just to focus on the Six Nations, focus on the next game."