Ireland’s entire pack must shoulder the “unbelievable” burden carried by injured flanker Sean O’Brien, according to boss Joe Schmidt.
Head coach Schmidt admitted Ireland will be hit hard by bullocking back-row forward O’Brien’s RBS 6 Nations absence after shoulder surgery.
But the former Leinster boss challenged Ireland’s pack to pick up the slack and share O’Brien’s Herculean workload in Sunday’s tournament opener against Scotland in Dublin.
Ulster flanker Chris Henry starts at openside, itching to frustrate Scotland at the breakdown, but will face a huge test to match O’Brien’s tireless ball-carrying exploits.
“Sean’s numbers were unbelievable both in defence and attack in the New Zealand defeat in November,” said Schmidt.
“So it’s a real roll-your-sleeves-up day for the back row against Scotland on Sunday.
“Everyone has to take on that responsibility. As long as it’s shared, then that burden is lightened, rather than asking one person to pick up 10 of the carries Sean made, and someone else to make 10 more.
“He’s a big loss and it’s a huge opportunity for Chris Henry and the rest of the forward pack to take it on.”
Captain Paul O’Connell believes Ireland’s current squad could be more talented than the 2009 vintage that claimed the Six Nations Grand Slam.
Munster talisman O’Connell believes Ireland boast huge potential under new boss Schmidt, but conceded last season’s fifth-placed Six Nations finish leaves the squad unable to start targeting the title.
“I think this squad is every bit as good and possibly better than 2009, but until we go on and do something you can’t say that,” said O’Connell.
“We’ve got a great amount of talent and experience.
“You look at Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll either side of Luke Marshall, they are three outstanding players.
“And there’s two guys with so much experience to guide Luke along.
“That team had been together a long time under Eddie (O’Sullivan), Deccie (Declan Kidney) came in, we rolled up our sleeves that year, dug in and won the Grand Slam.
“There’s probably a lot of lessons from that tournament that we can still heed now.
“Brian scored some tries in that tournament that will probably go on his DVD highlights reel, but we dug in and got the job done.
“At times last year we just didn’t do that.
“You can look at a lot of pieces of discipline, people knowing their role that bit better, or being that slight bit more accurate, and you get that one score that wins the game.
“We were behind at half-time in many of those games, and we dug in and came back to win.
“That doggedness, emotion and passion, we’ve got to bring that.”
Leinster’s fast-developing tighthead prop Martin Moore is primed for his international debut on Sunday.
The 22-year-old will be sent into second-half action from his seat on the bench, and boss Schmidt expects a big impact.
Though Schmidt concedes Ireland are thin on the ground on the prop front, he does anticipate Moore reaching the game’s pinnacle.
“I’m delighted for Marty, and I think it’s a close call for Stephen Archer, I think he’s done really well too,” said Schmidt.
“We just felt that Marty deserved the chance. With John Afoa, Nathan White and BJ Botha playing in the various provinces there’s not a massive amount of depth to go to.”
“At the same time I’ve no doubt Marty won’t let us down: he won’t let himself or his team-mates down.
“I think he’s shown in Heineken Cup games against some proven scrummagers, destructive scrummagers, that he can lock a scrum down and do a good job.”