By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Andy Farrell believes Grand Slam-chasing Ireland have become well-versed in handling the emotion of big occasions ahead of Sunday’s colossal Guinness Six Nations showdown with Scotland.
The world’s top-ranked nation are strong favourites for victory at what is likely to be a hostile Murrayfield as they seek to stay on course for a championship clean sweep following wins over Wales, France and Italy.
Scotland also have plenty at stake and must secure a first Triple Crown in 33 years to remain in title contention on the day long-serving full-back Stuart Hogg claims his 100th cap.
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Ireland head coach Farrell – a serial winner during his playing career in rugby league – insists there is no substitute for practising good habits in order to deliver when the pressure is on.
Asked about common factors in successful teams, he replied: “It’s in the process, isn’t it? It’s in the preparation and there’s only one way to fully believe really without it being plastic.
“You can’t prepare half-hearted and expect to walk out confident because when you are in the cauldron, it squeezes everything out of you.
“Our preparation is absolutely key to that and how we make each other feel all week and understanding if everyone is on the same page and everyone feels the same, that’s absolutely the key.
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“It’s something we’ve been building towards for a while now and, from what I’ve seen this week, it continues to build.
“What we’ve got really good at is making sure that towards the end of the week the right balance is there between switching on and switching off and being relaxed enough and not being too drained as far as the emotion of the occasion (is concerned), so therefore you’re able to be yourself.
“That’s something that’s been in the mix for quite some time now and it needs to continue to get better. How does it get better? By keep putting yourselves in these type of situations, so it’s a good test for us at the weekend.”
Ireland have been victorious in 20 of their last 22 Tests and are on a seven-match winning streak against Scotland.
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“I feel we’re in a good spot going into it but the opposition always has a good say in that and we’re playing against a good team,” continued Farrell.
“To be able to win a Triple Crown for them is huge, Stuart Hogg’s 100th cap is another bit of emotion that they’ll throw into the mix.
“You get to the point where all these things thrown into the pot adds a little bit more spice to the game.”
Farrell has made six personnel changes for the fixture, which is followed by next Saturday’s Dublin finale against England.
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Captain Johnny Sexton, prop Tadhg Furlong and centre Garry Ringrose will return from injury, while hooker Dan Sheehan, flanker Peter O’Mahony and scrum-half Conor Murray have also been restored.
Murray’s inclusion ahead of the fit-again Jamison Gibson-Park, who joins returning duo Cian Healy and Robbie Henshaw on the bench, was perhaps the most surprising selection.
Farrell hailed the mental toughness of the 33-year-old Munster man, who stepped in as a late replacement for Gibson-Park ahead of the round-one success in Wales before playing against France just days after his father was seriously injured in a road traffic collision.
“It takes a lot to shake him,” Farrell said of Murray. “He’s been through a lot, hasn’t he over the last few years?
“But I’ve never seen him break. I’ve never seen his confidence, his will break at all. He’s just kept working hard.
“I’ve never seen him sulk. I’ve never seen him feel sorry himself. It just shows the character of the man and that’s why he’s playing like he is.
“That’s how it’s been so far in this campaign for him.
“He’s still able to perform like he has. It’s a credit to him and his family how he’s handled the whole thing.”