Picturedabove: Paul O'Connell and Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll in actionduring Friday morning's training session for the Irish squad onLansdowne Road's back pitch.
Munster lock O'Connell believes, with the talent in the current Irish set-up, that the men in green are realistic World Cup contenders.The 27-year-old said: "We have such a high standard of player at themoment. There's a lot of talent and if we don't take advantage of it,we'll be very disappointed.
"This is our greatest chance of winning the World Cup and we need tostart believing that now before it's too late. We need to seize theopportunity. Back-to-back victories over the Southern Hemisphere wouldbe brilliant. It was incomprehensible in previous times."
O'Connell, who could be named the International Rugby Players Association's International Player of the Year on Tuesday, took some encouragement from Ireland's 37-15 loss to Australia in Perth in June despite the fact that the hosts outscored the Irish by five tries to two.
He said: "We do so much good stuff in Perth. We had a bit of a bad period in the middle of the game and that probably cost us.We conceded some soft tries and that probably killed us. People weresaying we were tired but the match fitness was there and Australia justhit the ground running. Their running lines in the second half wereexcellent."
Ulster hooker Rory Best will be making his second start for Ireland against the Wallabies this weekend. His provincial team-mate Bryan Young, seen behind him here, will be lining out alongside him at Test level for the first time.
Forwards coach Niall O'Donovan islooking for Ireland to put in another 80-minute performance as acrucial period in Perth, when the Irish concentration waned, saw theAussies pull clear. He said: "We played exciting rugby in Perth (duringthe summer tour) for 60 minutes, but an Australian prop then ran 50metres and scored. That was it - the game was gone.
"Our performance over 80 minutes is important, but we want to win at the end of it. If we can hold our concentration for the whole game, then that would be a major step forward for us."
Irish skipper Brian O'Driscoll runs through some training drills alongside his Leinster team-mate Malcolm O'Kelly. O'Driscoll will be making his 69th appearance for his country on Sunday, and is relishing the chance to pit his wits against Australia's new-look midfield unit of Lote Tuqiri and tour skipper Stirling Mortlock, who both stand at 6ft 3in and tip the scales in and around 16 stone.
The Leinster centre said: "The beauty of the Australian midfield isthat they are capable of mixing their game up. They can beup-the-middle merchants or create with the best of them. We won't buyinto talk of their size too much though.
"We'll certainly have our work cut out containing them. But they'llhave similar worries about us. What we lack in size we make up for in
Malcolm O'Kelly will have to be content with a place on the replacements bench again this weekend as coach Eddie O'Sullivan have stuck with the Munster combination of Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan in Ireland's second row.
O'Callaghan, braced for his 29th cap, revealed this week that O'Kellyis always offering him encouragement despite the fact that the Corkmanhas taken his place in the team. O'Callaghan conceded: "Mal's therecord caps holder, he's a two-time Lion. We're not talking about someaverage player, this fella is world class.
"It puts pressure on you when you look at him on the bench. Butin terms of help, Mal's brilliant. At half-time, he's the first fellato come up to the two of us (myself and Paulie) and talk about thelineouts or whatever. The way I'd be thinking is let the best fella for the job play. I've learned that over time."
The promotion of Bryan Young (centre)to the Irish starting line-up has given the Ulster prop a chance tostake his claims for a World Cup place, and injured hooker Jerry Flannery is heartened to see the Ballymena man get an opportunity to impress.
Flannery, who is currently continuing his rehab from a shoulderoperation, said: "I'm delighted to see Bryan Young get his first start.He is a guy I played with at academy level, and there has never beenany question about his talent for those of us who have known him fromthose days.
"He brings serious talent to the equation. He's a superb scrummager, extremely assured on set plays and an excellent lineout lifter. The fact that he can play both sides (loosehead and tighthead) is a big bonus, and it offers cover for John Hayes."
Ulster flanker Neil Best was a latecomer to rugby, having attended the hockey-playing school of Wellington College. Best's rugby talent really came to fruition at Queen's University in Belfast, where he studied Chemical Engineering and also combined his rugby with a fledgling rowing career.
The multi-talented Best reckons his hockey career was never reallygoing to take off. He said: "I would say I was competititve and fairlyathletic, and wouldn't capitulate, but I wouldn't have been a very skilful hockey player.I was more like at the back, chopping people in half when they werecoming at me." So it was a fortunate twists for the shins for Ulster'shockey stars that Best went down the rugby route.
Brian O'Driscoll and Denis Hickie take some time out from training to practice their soccer skills on the back pitch at Lansdowne Road. It has been a while since Ireland's top two try scorers- O'Driscoll is the record holder with 28 while Hickie has 25 to hisname - have combined at international level. Hickie's 51st and last capfor Ireland came in March 2005 against Wales.
**All photos by Billy Stickland of Inpho Photography**
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