“You looking forward to the Six Nations then, maate?” beamed my Kiwi gym instructor with a glint in his eye this week. “ABE?” On seeing my quizzical look, he quipped, “Anyone But England, yeah?” This pointed rhetoric was repeated with a chuckle by another PT within earshot, this one a South African.
As ever, it seems like Eddie Jones’ boys are as popular as Jacob Rees-Mogg at a Remainer march in certain parts, yet there is a growing belief England are best placed to topple Ireland, given they boast more firepower than Kim Jong-un, which they’re about to unleash on Joe Schmidt’s feted side on Saturday in Dublin.
Both coaches talked of brutality when discussing the game at the tournament’s launch and Schmidt himself displayed genuine modesty at his side’s billing as All Black-slayers, painting himself as an accidental coach, who would have preferred hoops to posts, teaching basketball at Palmerston North High School in New Zealand, where his journey started.
Schmidt doesn’t indulge in verbal grenades, of the type favoured by the Australian Jones, and fellow Kiwi, Warren Gatland. He instead, seeks to disarm and charm observers, casually divulging that such is the pressure to perform he sometimes wishes he could alight the team bus in advance of reaching the stadium on match day.
For those who have worked under Schmidt, that lens loses its soft-focus. He is an obsessive, highly organised and at times ruthless coach, but the all-pervasive pressure he refers to is all too real. This is the year of reckoning for Ireland. For all their undoubted clinical brilliance, the next eight months will define Schmidt’s legacy. Players will know it is within them to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2019 – this after failing to progress beyond the quarter-finals in the past eight tournaments – but whether they can hold their nerve is another matter entirely.
Ireland have seemingly tamed the Six Nations. Winners on three occasions, including last year’s Grand Slam, Schmidt would become the first coach to win it a fourth time, yet for all the excited chat of a Welsh assault on the title, sages agree it is England who are looking ominous. Shorn of the usual favourites tags, they will enter the bowels of the Aviva Stadium steely-eyed, after their 18-game winning run was halted in the squall of Dublin two years ago, and they were unceremoniously humbled at Twickenham last year by Rory Best’s men.
The difference now is Ireland are top dogs, it is how successfully Schmidt manages the burden of expectation on a side that has seemingly misplaced the losing habit. We’ll find out what they’re made of when Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga come thundering down their channel.
Indeed, Schmidt knows it is one thing scaling Everest – Ireland currently sit atop the Hillary Step looking to topple another band of Kiwi brothers – but the advice is to never look down.
From the hunter to the hunted, Ireland know the rules have changed.