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Ireland out to smash England off Six Nations perch

By Ruaidhri O'connor

According to Eddie Jones, Ireland were responsible for turning the rugby world upside down when they beat the All Blacks in November and for his next trick Joe Schmidt will look to move his side up the Six Nations standings and challenge England's supremacy.

The most tenured coach at yesterday's launch, the Kiwi was never going to make too many bold pronouncements about his team's potential but by upgrading expectations from last season's third-placed finish to targeting a top-two spot, he sent out a message that he believes Ireland are back in contention.

Whether that will be enough to dethrone Jones' juggernaut remains to be seen, but for the moment Schmidt's focus is on getting to Ireland's meeting with England at home on March 18 with a shot at the title. After winning the tournament in his first two attempts, last season's third-placed finish saw Ireland dip well below their standards as retirements, injuries and a post-World Cup lull took hold.

Schmidt's side drew one and lost two of their first three games, but recovered to beat Italy and Scotland to finish on a high and continued on an upward curve for the rest of 2016, achieving a historic triple crown of wins over the southern hemisphere big three.

The bookies have slotted them in as second favourites behind champions England who are on course to break the world record for successive wins in Dublin if they can triumph in their first four games, while Scotland coach Vern Cotter was only too happy to put his money on an Anglo-Irish scrap for the title.

"At the end of the six Nations we will see which of the two teams - Ireland or England - are at the top of their game," Schmidt's old Clermont boss said.

"Not many teams beat New Zealand. They beat us by 40 points not so long ago, which is an indication of what we are up against. We need to be a little frightened of them - I think that's a good thing. We need to be on top of our game."

While Schmidt recognises that Jones' team deserve the favourites' tag, he is looking forward to this year's tournament with more optimism than he did a year ago.

"The bookies had us 13/1 against the All Blacks, so I am not saying they get it wrong all the time but that's a long way wrong," he said.

"I am not sure which bookmakers but I would think that England would still be favourites but I am sure our odds would have shortened as compared to last year because I think there has been some visible growth in the team and we have tried to expand the depth.

"You know nothing protects you from injuries to key players. That could still happen and derail you a bit but hopefully we will be as well prepared as we can be."

He may feel that England are favourites, but Schmidt reckons his team can put themselves in a similar bracket and make life difficult for last year's Grand Slam winners.

"The last three years I kind of had to put the pin in the wall and make a marker and I think I said in the first two years that a top-two finish would be something I would be really happy with," he said.

"Last year just on the back of losing so much experience and so much ability through injury it was a bit of a rebuilding time for us.

"I think we built not too badly, I think it is going to be more competitive than ever but again it would be great if we could get a top-two finish.

"England are obviously incredibly tough, I think France are going to be tough as well I've no doubt, and even talking to Guy (Noves) today, some of the things he believes about how the team are coming together, how they are coming together in Marcoussis already, he feels, is so much better than last year.

"I think Wales are the sleeping giant, we have had trouble getting ahead of them in the Millennium Stadium before and if you remember last year England totally dominated them for the first 40 minutes, maybe 50/60 minutes, but in the last 20 minutes Wales could have won that match, they scored some great late tries and they have the firepower to really challenge as well.

"Scotland now have the strength in depth, hell Italy beat South Africa.

"Nothing is going to come easy, I think this is going to be an unbelievably good Six Nations."

As Schmidt mentioned, the fitness of his key men will be crucial with the cover behind Conor Murray, Rory Best, Devin Toner and Tadhg Furlong all thin.

The biggest talking point coming into the tournament, however, is once again the fitness of Johnny Sexton and Seán O'Brien who both have calf problems.

The coach expects O'Brien to train this week and Sexton to be back on the pitch on Monday and he is optimistic that the out-half can hit the ground running despite playing just 172 minutes of rugby since November 19.

"He tends to be a player who plays quite well fresh," he said.

"I agree, there are some players that need to get a real rhythm but I've been working with Johnny for six-and-a-half years, almost seven years, and in that time I've found him really quick to be match-ready.

"That's not too much of a concern to be honest. It is frustrating for him, it's frustrating for us because he's a powerful personality in the group and it's nice to have him on the training pitch as early as possible because we'll train three times this week.

"Then you're into a match week so those windows you get are fairly precious and you want as many of your key players involved in that.

"At the same time Paddy Jackson has become a key player for us, he has played a lot more Test rugby than Johnny at No 10 in the last seven Test matches so with Paddy there he slots in. Paddy is another guy, very calm, he does his homework, he's always well-prepared so we feel that the bases are reasonably well recovered.

"If Johnny comes in and trains next week it's almost an advantage for Paddy that he gets in the saddle this week and can run the show."

Schmidt even retains hope Jackson's Ulster team mate Jared Payne could make a return towards the end of the tournament after responding to treatment on his damaged kidney.

Having gone public for a day, he retreats back to Carton House to continue preparations with Scotland first up on Saturday week.

Belfast Telegraph


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