Ireland's Joe Schmidt rejects Six Nations 'favourites' tag

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prepares his team for a match against Barbarians. Photo/Photosport
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prepares his team for a match against Barbarians. Photo/Photosport

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is not taking any notice of who the pundits are tipping for Six Nations glory this year, rejecting the notion that his team are "favourites".

Schmidt insists that if Ireland lose their focus ahead of next Saturday's opening fixture at Murrayfield, they will end up losing to the strongest Scotland team he can remember in his tenure.

In his opinion, England were clear favourites for the tournament and would be "very hard to beat".

Ireland's thrilling win over the All Blacks at Soldier Field, Chicago, last autumn - their first ever victory over the All Blacks in 111 years of trying - was the highlight of a brilliant 2016 campaign, which saw them beat all three of the southern hemisphere giants.

With depth in almost every position, their provincial game in good shape and given the fact they face England at home in Dublin on the final day of the championship, expectations in Ireland are at an all-time high.

"'Favourites' is a tag that is external to our environment," the Kiwi said. "We were 13-1 in a two-horse race against the All Blacks.

"I am not saying they [the pundits] do not get it right sometimes, but things turn up. That is why people love sport - you do not know what the outcome is going to be and part of the fun is predicting it.

"We try to go less for prediction and more for preparation."

Schmidt did allow that his squad was in better shape than it had ever been, having absorbed the loss of senior figures such as Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon d'Arcy and Paul O'Connell in recent years to emerge stronger and more dynamic.

But he pointed out that the performance levels of the Six Nations teams in general had risen and particularly those of next weekend's opponents, Scotland.

"This is my fourth Six Nations and it will probably be the most competitive and difficult to assess of them all despite having one team that has been so dominant in the last 13 months - England - and the way they have performed," Schmidt said.

"I am sure France are going to England with a real spring in their step, based on what they did in November, and I have no doubt that Scotland are rubbing their hands together, waiting for us, because of how they did in November and how their teams are doing in Europe and the quality of people they can draw on and the competition for places they have."

Schmidt drew particular attention to how close Scotland went to beating England in their opening Six Nations fixture last year - a result that might have changed the course of history.

They stopped England from building up the head of steam, which eventually saw Eddie Jones' team rack up 13 consecutive wins in 2016 and pointed out that Vern Cotter's team had made huge strides since then.

"Last year, they lost 15-9 to England in the first game and when Finn Russell intercepts that ball, he does not see Stuart Hogg on his left-hand side. If there is a guy I'd back to go the length, it is Stuart Hogg and if you need to see him do it, watch our game in the Aviva - he did it to us.

"I look at their mid-field now and I did not know who Huw Jones was, because he was playing for the Stormers.

"Duncan Taylor was super for them in the last Six Nations, you have Alex Dunbar, a really good player who was good for them in November, you have Mark Bennett who is a really good player and Matt Scott who is good.

"Who does he pick in his midfield? He is in a much stronger position."

"There might be a bit of a reliance on Finn Russell, who had the ball on a string at Leicester [in Glasgow's recent Champions Cup win at Welford Rd] and is super for them.

"Greig Laidlaw in a great tactician who runs their game really well, and how quick is Ali Price when he comes off the bench and becomes a real strike weapon for them?

"And who do you pick in the second row? The Grays [Richie and Jonnie], [Grant] Gilchrist and Tim Swinson is flying at the moment ..."

Ultimately, Schmidt said, it was difficult to look past England, given the depth of talent at Jones' disposal.

"They have teams in Europe, really good November form, they are defending a Grand Slam and they have a depth of talent that is the envy of any other team in the Six Nations.

"So, if you had to pick a team that are going to be difficult to knock off, England are the ones on the pedestal and they are defending a Grand Slam title."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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