The 29-15 victory over world number two side South Africa two weeks ago and last Monday’s elevation to number three in the rankings has seen hope replaced by expectation among Ireland supporters that Joe Schmidt’s side can beat the Wallabies at a sold-out Aviva Stadium this afternoon to round out an unbeaten 2014 Guinness Series and complete a first November sweep since 2006.
It would be a seventh win a row since losing narrowly to England at Twickenham in February and despite the gathering momentum O’Connell believes his Six Nations champions are dealing admirably with their new-found and unfamiliar status as favourites against a Southern Hemisphere giant.
“The way we are approaching it is quite good. The only chat in the group is about improving, trying to do something we did last week better this week, trying to improve our performance week on week,” the Ireland captain said.
“There are a whole load of little things you can improve on in a rugby game week-on-week. That’s something we’ve discussed. If we can maintain that attitude, it is a good way of dealing with things when you’re playing well.
“Rather than chasing a win, you’re chasing a performance and you’re chasing improvement. And that’s where we are at the moment.”
For O’Connell, heightened expectations in the media and among the Irish public could never match his own.
“Maybe ye haven’t expected it of us, but I’ve always had high expectations whenever I’ve played with Ireland.
“I think we’ve had great players and I think we haven’t always performed to the best of our abilities. I’ve always felt the weight of expectation whenever I play with Ireland. I still feel it there.
“I think the way of managing it at the moment, in terms of improved performance and improving week-on-week, is a good way of doing it”.
While the Irish camp has dismissed their new ranking as an irrelevance all week, O’Connell’s opposite number Michael Hooper yesterday spoke of the Wallabies’ desire to return to that position. The Australians were leapfrogged by Ireland as a result of the Irish win over the Springboks a fortnight ago and their own defeat to France last Saturday.
“That was a really good performance against South Africa,” Australia flanker and skipper Hooper said of the Irish. “We’ve played against them a lot through Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and they’re a really tough team to beat.
“To get a win over South Africa is great for them and puts the pressure on us to get a win. They’re at number three in the world now, a spot we’ve held for most of the year, and we have to try to get back but to do that we’ve got to get through these guys first.
“They’ve been really solid, really good and they’ve got big forwards.”
Hooper played in last year’s 32-15 victory over Ireland but sees a side much more confident now than 12 months ago.
“You have to be confident in world rugby and they are confident at the moment, so they’re going to prove tough to beat.
“We’re building, we’re up and down, so we’re chasing consistency; we want to pick up from where we where against Wales and keep going on that incline.”
Paul O’Connell has dismissed talk of him leaving Munster for France when his contract expires.
The Ireland captain shot down speculation that surfaced in French newspaper Midi Olympique this week that he would join Top14-bound Pau when his current IRFU deal ran out at the end of next season.
Speaking ahead of winning his 96th, O’Connell, 35, pictured, said: “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know where it came from.
“I suppose it’s the fact that James Coughlan and Simon Mannix are there and I knew them at Munster, but there’s been nothing done on my behalf and nothing done on Pau’s behalf. I’m contracted until the summer of 2016, so I just don’t know where it came from.”