Andy Farrell believes the pressure of being Guinness Six Nations title favourites can aid Ireland’s ultimate quest for World Cup glory.
Farrell's side go into the championship top of the world rankings on the back of an outstanding year which brought nine wins from 11 Tests, including a historic series success in New Zealand.
While Ireland had to settle for the consolation of a Triple Crown behind Grand Slam champions France last year, bookmakers view them as the pre-tournament frontrunners this time around.
Head coach Farrell is eager for his players to block out the outside noise but, with the start of the World Cup just over seven months away, acknowledges the burden of expectation may have long-term benefits.
“Internally, the main thing for us is being honest of where we’re at and what we need to get better at,” said the Englishman, whose team toppled the All Blacks, Australia and world champions South Africa in 2022.
“It was very evident to us in how our performances have gone over the last year of where we need to improve, so hopefully that looks after itself.
“Pressure is more internal than anything. If pressure from the outside begins to seep in then it’s good for us to be able to deal with that.
“We want to get better for what’s down the track for obvious reasons and dealing with a different type of pressure is going to be priceless for us going forward.”
Ireland begin their campaign on February 4 against Wales in Cardiff before a mouthwatering Dublin showdown with Les Bleus a week later.
Farrell’s men then travel to Italy and Scotland in rounds three and four respectively ahead of a tantalising tournament finale at home to Steve Borthwick’s new-look England on March 18.
Veteran captain Johnny Sexton is determined to make the most of a potential Six Nations swansong.
The 37-year-old wants Ireland to lay down a marker ahead of the autumn World Cup in France but insists the squad’s full focus is on immediate challenges.
“The older you get, the more selfish you get, you want to make the most of every opportunity,” said the Leinster fly-half, whose retirement plans remain up in the air.
“It’s such a special tournament, so hard to win. When you talk about how many titles Ireland have over the last 20, 30 years, it’s not too many. It’s a special thing to achieve something in the tournament.
“We’re not talking about the World Cup at all, the only thing we’re talking about is Wales and how we can get ourselves in the best shape possible.
“(But) I think it’s important to keep momentum going to prove we can go and do something in the World Cup.”