Ireland captain Johnny Sexton feels he is preparing to take on the best Scotland team of the Six Nations era after declaring himself fit for Sunday’s Murrayfield showdown.
Andy Farrell’s men travel to Edinburgh with Grand Slam ambitions still intact thanks to bonus point victories over Wales, France and Italy.
The world’s top-ranked nation has dominated matches against the Scots for the past ten years, winning 11 of their last 12 encounters.
But Gregor Townsend’s side was a much tougher proposition in this year’s tournament – beating England and Wales to defeat in France – and bid for the first Triple Crown since the 1990 Five Nations to keep themselves in title contention .
Fly-half Sexton, who sat out the third round in Rome due to a groin problem suffered against France, believes Ireland is “privileged” to be fighting for a clean sweep and is bracing for the championship’s biggest test to date.
“We don’t consider ourselves favourites, we don’t even talk about that,” he said. “We think it will be an incredibly tough game.
“They’re probably the best Scottish team – maybe not of all time because there are Scottish teams that have won championships and stuff – but certainly the best Scottish team we’ve played against.
“This is probably the best Scottish team since the start of the Six Nations. It will be a very, very tough race and it will probably be our toughest of the championship so far.”
Ireland has put aside the absence of a host of star men from Stadio Olimpico, including their influential skipper, to remain the pacesetters of the competition.
Sexton, who confirmed this weekend that he was “good to go”, previously won a Grand Slam in 2018 – the third Six Nations win of his impressive career.
The 37-year-old believes Scotland’s hopes of ending a 33-year Triple Crown drought add an extra edge to a troublesome outward journey.
“Every team comes into this competition and wants to win a Grand Slam, want to win a championship and that’s why it’s so important to start well because that keeps everything alive,” he said.
“We still have them in our possession, so we talk about it clearly and make sure we deal with the pressure that comes with that, but it’s a privileged position to go for it.”
Speaking of Scotland’s Triple Crown aspirations, he continued: “It’s something we’ll have to acknowledge because it’s going to create a very special atmosphere there I’m sure – it’s always a very special atmosphere, even if nothing on the line.
“But it’s a huge game now that they’re going for a Triple Crown and still in the championship and obviously we’re in the championship and obviously want to try to win a Triple Crown ourselves.
“It’s a huge game, so it’s great to be a part of it.”
Sexton could also hit a personal milestone on Sunday as he closes in on becoming the Six Nations’ all-time leading goalscorer.
The Leinster man, who is just seven championship points short of former team-mate Ronan O’Gara’s record total of 557, insists that collective glory trumps individual achievement.
“It’s something people say to you or you see it on social media,” he said. “Irish Rugby tagged me in something today, which I wasn’t too happy about!
“It’s there, but I don’t think it’s going to pressure me or anything like that. It’s not something I ever set out to do.
“I’d rather not score another point and win a championship or a Grand Slam than set the points record. I don’t really care. When it comes, great, but it’s not something that keeps me awake.
“If the right decision is to go to the corner and pass points, then I will.
“But when you do it, it’s a great achievement. Ronan obviously had a great career and just to be in that same conversation is enough for me.