by Glenn Mason

Before the Euro 2012 play-off victory over Estonia in November, Stephen Ward spoke at length about his dreams of playing in a major tournament.

Barring any unexpected events, Ward will realise those dreams on Sunday night when he lines up in the Republic of Ireland's defence against Croatia in Poznan.

Ward spent his early years cheering on the Jack Charlton sides that reached the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and is honoured to be creating memories for another generation of Irish children.

However, he admits that the excitement of playing on the big stage for the first time will not distract him from the task at hand.

Ward said: "It will be a dream come true. It's something that I dreamt about as a kid.

"I've said it many times before that my childhood memories are all about watching Ireland in major tournaments.

"Now that we are here it is important to realise that, but it's also important to realise that we are here to do a job.

"We are not here to make up the numbers. We have qualified well and we want to make sure that we put a good stamp on this tournament.

"We are all out here to do ourselves proud and do our country proud, our families, friends, everyone back home that's watching and everyone that's travelled so far to be here.

"It's a great sense of occasion but also something that we want to achieve in and make sure we do everyone proud."

Like many of his team-mates who have spoken to the media this week, Ward has pointed to the unity in the squad and the unbeaten run as reasons for players and fans to be optimistic about success on the pitch.

He said: "I think that's something we can see on the pitch (unity) and hopefully it'll stand us in good stead in the games to come.

"We are 14 unbeaten coming into this tournament. I don't think there are many countries that will be on a better run than us coming into it.

"We're in good form. If that's not sticking to a plan I don't know what else is?"

For Ward's defensive partner, Sean St Ledger, the tournament is a chance to repay the faith shown in him by Giovanni Trapattoni.

St Ledger has experienced mixed fortunes at club level since he broke into the Ireland team in 2009, but he has become a mainstay alongside Richard Dunne at the heart of the defence.

He said: "The manager has been very good to me since I came in against Nigeria and has put a lot of faith in me so I have got a lot to thank him for.

"Everyone is majorly [sic] excited for this game against Croatia. It has been 24 years since we have been in this tournament and we have got a very tough group.

"Everybody is looking forward to it and hopefully we can go and get the three points."

Much has been made of the need to get off to a winning start ahead of the Italy and Spain games, but St Ledger believes that is disrespectful to a talented Croatian team.

He said: "Everyone keeps saying that [Ireland need a result], but we played Croatia last year. They are a very good team.

"They have a lot of talent in their squad and that game is going to be the same as the Spain and the Italy games. It is going to be a very tough game for us."

"But we are unbeaten in 14 games, kept a lot of clean sheets and we can definitely score goals."