Ireland are ‘in it to win it’ insisted hooker Rory Best ahead of the start of this year’s RBS 6 Nations, which will burst into life in Cardiff tonight.
“All the 15 players taking the field, along with the subs and everyone not involved, we are taking part in this competition to win it. That is first and foremost in our minds,” said Rory Best from the Irish squad’s base.
“That is where we have got ourselves as a squad over the last number of years. We want to win it. We are all ambitious. Every competition we are in as a province or as a country we want to win it and that is the way we are starting this.”
But the Ulster captain, who is just coming back from a rib injury, is under no illusions that replicating the 2009 Grand Slam success will be a tough road.
“Every country had mixed results in the autumn and mixed performances. Each country has had mixed results and performances in the Heineken Cup which is sometimes another barometer of how things are going to go.
“On any day, any team can beat anyone and that is what makes the Six Nations so special. It is so tight and we see the so-called surprises and upsets across the board every year.
“We have Italy first up on Saturday. That is what we are focusing on now. At the end of the day if you want to win the thing, you have to win all five games.
“You can win a Championship if you score enough points, but that is not what we are looking at. We are seeing this as the first game of a Championship that we want to get back. We will not be looking beyond Italy until Sunday morning.”
As Ireland prepare to take on the familiar sight of Nick Mallett’s Azzurri, Best begins a new partnership in the front row with Mike Ross and Cian Healy.
While neither player has close to the 104 caps accumulated by John Hayes, Best knows the quality that they possess.
“They are slightly less experienced but Cian (Healy) has played in some very big games. While he is still relatively young, there are a lot of big matches he has played in.
“He has played against all of the big three in the southern Hemisphere and he played in all the Six Nations games last year. So while he maybe doesn’t have the 100 caps John Hayes has, he has still a lot of experience for such a young kid.”
He was no less complimentary of Ross, whom he played with during Ireland’s north American tour 18 months ago and against in the Heineken Cup for Ulster against Harlequins.
Best believes the Corkman is on an upward curve, saying: “Leinster had a very tough Heineken Cup pool, playing against some very big packs, and Mike performed very well, so you would have absolutely no fears of Mike Ross playing in the SIx Nations either.
“I know what they (Healy and Ross) are all about and they know what I am all about. As a three we have never played together and you do get better the more you play together, but we are very lucky with (scrummaging coach) Greg Feek there.
“He has broken everything down and got us working together and things like that do take time, but they take time to add on the little extra couple of percent that will make a massive difference.
“We should be at a very good place on Saturday anyway, and it will just be adding on the wee bits and pieces as time goes on.”
On the back of Ulster’s qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, the Banbridge clubman insists that the provinces’ achievements and successes can spur Ireland on to greater things at Test level.
“You owe a lot to the way the provinces have gone over the last number of years. Munster, we all know they have been there for the past 10 or 12 years.
“Leinster have really come on over the last four to five years and now hopefully Ulster can start to push on because it’s very important for Irish rugby that all provinces are going well.
“It makes it a lot easier. You come in. Everyone is buoyed in here. There is a good mood around the camp because you are happy at home.”
But the admission of Benetton Treviso and Aironi Rugby into the Magners League, and their success – although limited – against Irish sides sends a clear warning.
“We are under no illusions. Italy are a very, very good team. We have seen a lot of it in the Magners League, with Ulster. We had Aironi in Europe, so we have played a lot of them.
“When you come off playing against the Italian national team or one of the club teams after 80 minutes, you really know you have been in a game of rugby.
“If you take any of them lightly at all they will beat you. Leinster lost in Treviso at the start of the Magners League. I am not suggesting they took them lightly, but they have the ability to beat teams.
“They have evolved a lot over the last couple of years, the Italian national team under Nick Mallett especially. They are a very dangerous animal.
“We will have to give them respect and as a pack of forwards, we will have to take them on and at the very least match what they have got,” added Best.