The Irish are second favourites to regain a title they lost to England in 2016 with supporters already pencilling in what they believe will be a Grand Slam decider against Eddie Jones’s defending champions on March 18. The Scots, meanwhile, are rated 25/1 outsiders in a tournament in which they have never finished higher than third.
The expectation, backed by two big wins for Ireland over Vern Cotter’s side on the last day of the past two seasons, is Saturday’s trip to Edinburgh is a slam dunk for captain Rory Best and his players having won 40-10 there in 2015 in defend their title.
Yet, with an encouraging November that saw a narrow loss to Australia and victories over Argentina and Georgia allied to Glasgow Warriors’ first qualification for the Champions Cup quarter-finals courtesy of a 43-0 hammering of Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, Ireland’s head coach could not disagree more.
Asked what he expected from Scotland this Saturday, Schmidt replied: “A torrid time to be honest. I think they’re in super shape at the moment. I watched (Glasgow and Scotland fly-half) Finn Russell pull the strings at Welford Road and it’s pretty uncommon for the opposition 10 to be pulling the strings there. All the usual suspects were showing up for Glasgow that will likely show up against us, Johnny Gray running in a try, Tommy Seymour. They are impressive players that really continue to impress.
“The way (lock) Tim Swinson is going is exceptional and you’ve Richie Gray to come into the mix and Grant Gilchrist is a really good player.
“Part of the torrid time, maybe in the past sometimes there hasn’t been the depth, Scotland have started well and haven’t quite had the guys coming off the bench but I think they’re really well-equipped, as well-equipped as I’ve seen them anyway and that’s going to be a massive challenge for us.
“So you look at where they were performance-wise two years ago, when we managed to topple them at Murrayfield and look at where they are now and I certainly don’t anticipate a similar score at all.”
Ireland’s trip to Scotland is for one of three away games in the schedule with more travel the following weekend when Schmidt goes up against new Italy head coach Conor O’Shea in Rome.
France are next up as Guy Noves brings Les Bleus to Dublin on February 25 before the Irish close out the campaign with a Friday night clash against Wales in Cardiff on March 10 before the English pitch up at Aviva Stadium eight days later.
Speaking at last week’s media lauch for the 2017 Championship, Schmidt predicted a tournament “more competitive than ever” but added Ireland were targetting a top-two finish as he ran the rule over the Irish rivals.
“England are obviously incredibly tough, I think France are going to be a tough as well, I’ve no doubt, and even talking to Guy, some of the things he believes about how the team are coming together, how they are coming together in Marcoussis (their training base) 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 before and if you remember last year England totally dominated them for the first 40 minutes, maybe 50/60, but in the last 20 minutes, was there a foot in touch or not, it looked marginal to me, and Wales could have won that match, they scored some great late tries and they have the firepower to really challenge as well.
“We talked about Scotland and they have the strength in depth they now have. Hell, Italy beat South Africa. Nothing is going to come easy, I think this is going to be an exceptionally good Six Nations.”