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Irish have a target on their back

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

As he passed Joe Schmidt in a corridor before they faced a gruelling schedule of media interviews at the Six Nations launch yesterday, Eddie Jones gave a quip about throwing a few verbal grenades into the ether to see where they land.

However, there wasn't a scratch on either man as they made their way to Portugal last night after the Australian kept his powder dry and chose a low-key approach.

Indeed, the whole affair was more Cold War than Phoney War as Jones said he may pick up a pair of binoculars at the airport and make the short journey across to Ireland's base at Quinta do Lago for a look at Schmidt's preparations.

Twice, the England coach referenced the potential for spying as he put his charges through their paces.

Perhaps the exploits of Leeds United had made everyone a little paranoid or maybe this was an occasion when the coaches simply decided that the on-pitch battles to come can hype themselves.

Then again, it may just have been that this group of coaches are old hands at this stage.

Next year there will be a fresh-faced line-up at the event; Andy Farrell will be wearing the IRFU blazer, while Wayne Pivac will don the red tie.

Jacques Brunel is out of contract after the World Cup and unlikely to be kept on. Conor O'Shea's deal runs until the summer of 2020 but there are already reports of his rumoured replacements circulating, and Jones is under threat.

The changing of the guard is imminent but the old guard remain and it is clear that Ireland have their attention.

We should have known that it would all be nice and civil when news came through about Jones' dinner date with Warren Gatland on the eve of the launch.

According to the England coach they talked about the state of the game in New Zealand, Wales and England and the scope for improvement among referees.

One wonders if the best way to go about beating the current standard-bearers came up.

Gatland can usually be relied upon to spice things up and he came closest to upping the ante.

"There is a lot of talk in Ireland about them being potential World Cup favourites and winning the tournament," the New Zealander said.

"What is going to be challenging is it is going to be an interesting quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand.

"We just concentrate on ourselves and doing the right thing and not worrying about the external stuff we can't control. The more you guys are talking about other teams the better for us. We just keep trucking on."

That was as explosive as it got.

Both coaches talked about Ireland's keep-ball approach, a bit of a change of tack from Jones who was anticipating 'kick and clap' rugby on his last visit to Dublin.

Despite Ireland's move to a possession-based game, the Australian is anticipating a return to the old ways next Saturday.

"I think it'll be a high-kicking game," he said. "Are they going to clap? It depends if we kick well or Ireland kick well.

"They've changed their game for the autumn, but traditionally the Six Nations is a different tournament.

"Teams play differently in the Six Nations. We certainly prepare differently for the Six Nations than we would for June or autumn, because it's a different sort of rugby.

"I've never seen a Six Nations game that was not brutal. Traditionally, if you look at Six Nations history over the years, it's a big gain-line contest.

"Ball-in-play is higher in the Six Nations than any other tournament in the world. You've got to be prepared for it.

"We'll be prepared, I'm sure Ireland will not be in Portugal sunbathing. They'll be preparing for a tough old contest."

If Ireland can manage their way through the first four games, then Wales await in Cardiff on March 16.

Schmidt reckons the schedulers have been kind to Gatland and his men, who start away to France and host England in round three.

The outgoing Wales coach is quietly confident despite Ireland's status as favourites.

"Ireland deserve to be No.2 in the world, you could argue Ireland are the best team in the world at the moment, they are one of the favourites to win the World Cup and rightly so in terms of they're a tough team to play against," he said.

"We've had a pretty successful strategy in the past and we're going to try to have a game plan to implement and we'll be looking to do that at the end of the tournament.

"The reason they're tough to play against is their retention of the ball, particularly if they get into your 22, their conversion rate for scoring is excellent; whether it's three points through Johnny Sexton or getting over the line.

"They're hard to get the ball off, they're disciplined in terms of conceding territory and giving away penalties. They're one of the hardest teams in the world to play against.

"We've had a pretty even contest with Ireland with close games and the win ratio is pretty even.

"It's a great tournament, it's always a challenge against the other coaches and you're always trying to get one up on the coaches as well as the teams."

As Schmidt left London, the only things burning were his ears.

The grenades never materialised, but the heavy artillery is on the way next week and the shelling will continue right through to St Patrick's weekend.

This year's Guinness Six Nations Championship fixtures

Friday, February 1: France v Wales (8pm)

Saturday, February 2: Scotland v Italy (2.15pm); Ireland v England (4.45pm)

Saturday, February 9: Scotland v Ireland (2.15pm); Italy v Wales (4.45pm)

Sunday, February 10: England v France (3pm)

Saturday, February 23: France v Scotland (2.15pm); Wales v England (4.45pm)

Sunday, February 24: Italy v Ireland (3pm)

Saturday, March 9: Scotland v Wales (2.15pm); England v Italy (4.45pm)

Sunday, March 10: Ireland v France (kick-off 3pm)

Saturday, March 16: Italy v France (12.30pm); Wales v Ireland (2.45pm); England v Scotland (5pm)

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