And so it begins. There was a new venue in west London yesterday as the self-styled Rugby’s Greatest Championship was rechristened the NatWest 6 Nations to reflect the updated title sponsor.
But the great “we’re not favourites” parlour game was a familiar nod to years past and England boss Eddie Jones was once again at the heart of the action.
After sparring with Warren Gatland the last couple of years, it is Joe Schmidt’s Ireland on whom the defending champions’ head coach is now focused.
It was in Dublin, last March, that Jones’s bid for back-to-back Grand Slams was sunk by Irish passion and clinical efficiency, the Australian suffering his first and, to date, only defeat after picking up the pieces following England’s terrible home World Cup campaign in October 2015.
The English returned home as champions, though, and will start the championship in nine days as hot favourites to make it three titles in a row, though Jones had other ideas about the team to back for 2018.
“Well, if you read the press, which I do,” Jones began, eyes permanently set to twinkle, “Ireland have got a centrally-contracted system, their players are in great nick, their three provinces have done well in the European club system… England have all these injuries and we don’t have central contracting.
“We’re lucky to have one side in the European club championship (Champions Cup quarter-finals). So how can we compete?”
Extending Jones’s logic, that would surely mean that Ireland are the team under pressure as favourites.
“Well, it’s different, isn’t it? You go into a major tournament – and this is one of the major tournaments in the world – if you go in as favourites it comes with massive expectations.
“Fans, supporters, media, sponsors…. It’s how you react to that expectation, but they’ve got a great coach and they’ve got good leadership in the team so I’m sure they’ll be able to handle it. But there’s always that question there…”
Jones loves to sow the seeds of doubt and he did so again when asked whether he was expecting a championship decider on March 17 when Ireland visit Twickenham. He preferred to focus on Ireland’s tough opening assignment in Paris on February 3.
“I’m sure all Ireland are worried about is the tricky game they’ve got first up against France,” the England boss said.
“That’s a tricky game. I wouldn’t like to be playing France first with Jacques Brunel in charge of that team. You don’t know what they’re going to produce. I’m sure Joe’s got his side concentrating on that.”
Schmidt was certainly not spending too much time concentrating on his opposite number in the England camp. The Ireland head coach preferred to side with the opinions of bookmakers.
“Bookies don’t make money by being wrong,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got a team there that’s won 22 out of 23 Test matches over the last two years. They’ve beaten everybody they’ve come up against at some stage.
“As much as we might have been the team that managed to knock them over last year, the year before that they beat us at Twickenham. They’re back at home at Twickenham when they play us. I think you’ve got a number of other teams that will be very competitive so, look, as I say, the bookies don’t make money by being wrong too often.”
Where the two coaches did agree was that unpredictable France and their new coach Jacques Brunel away on the opening weekend was a tricky challenge.
“Yeah,” Schmidt said, “one of the ways you like to try to futureproof 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 doing to do. 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 Schmidt approaches his fifth Six Nations campaign he agreed it was time to regain the title Ireland won in the first two years of his tenure, in 2014 and 2015. A difficult, injury-hit post-World Cup championship the following year brought a third-place finish before last year’s final-day home win over England gave Ireland runner-up spot.
They are the ups and downs that lead Schmidt to say he enjoys a “love/hate relationship with the Six Nations”.
“I honestly try to be honest and just say it as I see it. I would be a quiet optimist, but I’m also a realist and I know how tough it is. 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, wow, they look all right’.
“That’s the nature of 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.”
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