Johnny Sexton says Ireland are braced for the “toughest game we’ve ever faced” ahead of a mouthwatering Rugby World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand in Paris.
The world’s top-ranked nation are seeking an 18th consecutive win to reach the last four of the tournament for the first time.
Captain Sexton has faced the formidable All Blacks many times across his distinguished career, including leading his country to an historic tour success last summer.
The 38-year-old, who will retire after the tournament, said: “I haven’t thought once about what personally the game means.
“It’s all about the team and progressing in the competition, that’s all we’re thinking about.
“I’ve had some great battles with New Zealand over the years with Ireland and the (British and Irish) Lions and what you learn is that every game is as tough as the last, no matter what the result.
“And that’s what we’re preparing for: the toughest game we’ve ever faced and we’re trying to put ourselves in the frame of mind that we’re going to be ready for it.”
Ireland have the upper hand in recent meetings with the three-time world champions, winning three of four during the Andy Farrell era and four of the last six.
Sexton believes his side have put themselves in position to go and win the World Cup – an achievement he feels would have been unthinkable during his childhood.
And the veteran fly-half does not feel unduly burdened by the importance of the occasion.
“Trying to win a World Cup, it’s something to go and get, it’s not something that puts pressure on me,” said Sexton.
“It’s something you dream of, probably not as a kid because when we were kids we didn’t dream of Ireland winning the World Cup.
“I suppose we’ve put ourselves in a position now to go and do that.
“But it’s something to go and get, it’s not something to be pressured about.
“It’s all geared up towards a massive game on Saturday, a massive challenge for this team, the biggest we’ve faced, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Ireland’s string of previous quarter-final failures is well documented.
Sexton, who is playing at his fourth World Cup, dismissed the significance of those past disappointments.
“We’ve worked on our mental game for the last four years,” he said.
“We’ve put ourselves in different scenarios over the last four years to prepare for this.
“But each quarter-final that we haven’t got through, or when we haven’t got through our pool, they’ve all been different and it’s a different group again.
“Each of those groups lost once, it wasn’t the same group losing quarter-finals year after year.
“If it was club rugby, it would probably be a bigger hurdle, but it’s a different group. I don’t think we’re carrying much baggage. It’s a one-off game and we’ve got to prepare for it now.”
Head coach Farrell has named an unchanged starting XV for the crunch clash in the French capital after securing top spot in Pool B with last weekend’s 36-14 success over Scotland.
Wing Mack Hansen sustained a calf issue in that match but, despite sitting out training on Tuesday and Wednesday, has been deemed ready to play.
Farrell insists the Australia-born Connacht wing is fully fit.
“He is, yeah,” said the Englishman.
“He obviously had a few things to do at the beginning of the week but he’s coming good and everyone is very confident that he’s going to be fine for the game – no problems.”
Injured lock James Ryan has dropped out of the matchday 23 but is expected to be available for the semi-final stage.
Test rookies Joe McCarthy and Jimmy O’Brien are among the replacements.
“James Ryan is out with a wrist injury that has been sorted,” said Farrell.
“We expect him to be fit for next week, if we’re able to get that far.”