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Ireland coach Schmidt won't be distracted by England chief Jones' 'grenades'

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt says he has a love/hate relationship with the Six Nations and one suspects much of the latter part of that equation comes from the focus he comes under during the tournament window.

Yesterday, he attended his fifth Championship launch - a gruelling series of interviews with the people the Ireland coach likes to devote the least amount of his time to, the rugby media.

The New Zealander had jetted in from Spain where he and the team are enjoying a warm-weather training camp that was kept under wraps by the IRFU until the plane was leaving Dublin Airport.

One wonders why they felt the need to make a week-long stint in Valencia a state secret, perhaps they didn't want to be seen to be following Eddie Jones' lead. England have spent a week in Portugal ahead of each of the former Australia and Japan coach's tournaments in charge.

Indeed, the contrast in styles between the English and Irish supremos was marked throughout the day as they went from room to room to face questions from the different branches of the media.

"I know Eddie from old," Schmidt said at one point.

"I've coached against Eddie in Super Rugby and I know he's going to throw the odd grenade in, and fair play to him for doing it. It keeps everyone interested and it keeps us on our toes."

Jones' arrival has certainly perked up an event that most annual attendees dread and he was full value once again yesterday.

At one point, he came out with the line "I'm not Donald Trump" and yet he was dishing out a liberal sprinkling of fake news as he went, branding Ireland favourites as he went, despite the bookies' clear preference for his own side.

Schmidt is the Kiwi straight man to Jones' bombastic character and if it comes down to a shoot-out between the two on final weekend then the Ireland coach better be ready for more than grenades.

In 2016, the Australian was guilty of crossing a line with his comments about Johnny Sexton's head injuries, while last year he turned his sights towards Ireland's style of play - describing Schmidt's game-plan as "kick and clap" rugby.

He clearly sees merit in trying to raise heckles, but the former Leinster man prefers to turn the other cheek.

"I honestly try to be honest and just say it as I see it," said Schmidt. "I would be a quiet optimist, but I'm also a realist and I know how tough it is.

"Having been involved (for five seasons), it seems like yesterday that it was my first one and I was probably punch-drunk by the time I talked to you guys at the end of that first (launch) four years ago.

"Every year I look at it and go 'wow, I think we've progressed a bit, worked hard and we are where we are and it's not a bad place to be'.

"Then I look at our opponents and I go 'wow, they look good'. That's the nature of it, I'm looking forward to it.

"I have a love/hate relationship with the Six Nations and I just like to be reasonably transparent about how I feel about it and how I perceive the players to be prepared for it."

After placing a favourites tag on Ireland, Jones then suggested they'd struggle under the weight of it before questioning whether they'd be ready to face France.

Les Bleus are the Ireland coach's firm focus right now and, despite high expectations among fans on the back of a strong November, Schmidt is expecting a tough start.

"You will always have an array of opinions and perceptions, I can't control those, I can't even influence them really," he said.

"All I can do is try and work as hard as I can to get our coaching staff and players on the same page and motivated and to build a bit of confidence.

"Players have come in confident, but there's also that reality of the history we have in France and that unpredictability that is exacerbated by the changes that we know have just happened in French rugby.

"I think France last year and this year is a little bit different.

"In the past, some of the French players would have had to have played this coming weekend.

"That's not the case now, they can protect 30 players so that they can get that fresh approach into that first game.

"With the attritional nature of the Top 14, that breathing space will breathe a bit of life into the French players and will hit them when they're incredibly lively."

Usually, Schmidt will forensically pick apart an opponent in the video analysis room but France present a challenge after changing coaches last month, with Jacques Brunel calling up a host of new faces.

"One of the ways you like to try to future-proof what is coming up is to try to control as many variables as you can and predict as best you can who and how and what they're going to do," said the Ireland chief.

"That's pretty difficult to do. As well as that, Eddie probably doesn't want to face them first up because, last year, they almost beat them at Twickenham.

"That's what they can do. You'll get an enthusiastic response from the players.

"They've got a new opportunity from Jacques and they're going to respond to that. They're going to feel they owe the coaches their very best effort.

"They'll owe 80,000 fans in there the same thing so it's a complicated match for us. I think it's one that has us pretty nervous."

As he boarded his flight back to Spain, relieved that his first media duty since the November series was over and done with, he could focus fully on France and what he does best - preparing the team.

He won't have to worry about Jones again for a few weeks yet but if his team can get to Twickenham with four wins under their belts then they'll know what's coming.

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