By Phil Rice
In keeping with tradition, the head coaches and captains of this year’s Six Nations teams met last week at the salubrious surroundings of the Hurlingham Club in London, to launch this year’s tournament
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was making his final appearance at this annual jamboree and has made no secret of his dislike for these circus-like gatherings.
While these peripheral duties are an irritation for the amiable Kiwi, his affection for the tournament itself has not diminished over his years as coach.
He said: “I love the Championship because of how tight it is, how every game is such a contest. The crowds get incredibly engaged during the games. It’s all-consuming.
“I kind of have this love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes I’m on the bus going to the ground. On the way to the Aviva Stadium, you go past the fans and these people are really enjoying themselves.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) January 31, 2019
“I’m on the bus thinking, ‘I just hope this doesn’t go bad’. I almost feel like telling the bus driver, ‘whoa, just let me off’. I just want to go have a pint with these people and have as much fun as they do.”
Schmidt has maintained an element of privacy as to what he will do after this year’s World Cup, when he retires from his position with Ireland.
He plans on spending some much deserved time with his family, but beyond that he says he has no real plans.
What is certain is that he will clearly miss some of the elements that he has experienced during the six years he has guided Irish rugby to the pinnacle of the world game.
He said: “I will miss those moments in a changing room at the end of a game where you have seen players give everything they have got. Moments like that you can be really proud of. I’ll miss that hugely.”
Irish fans will certainly miss this modest, likeable man who they have taken to their hearts during his coaching tenure with the National team. It also transpires that competing coaches will also miss his positive contributions to their cause.
Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend, said last week: “Joe has been a real help to me as a coach. I spoke to him at length before I took the Glasgow job.
“We coached against each other when he was Leinster coach and now again at Test level. He’s been a great real role model for me and has always been really helpful.”
Perhaps more surprisingly his Welsh sparring partner, Warren Gatland, was also full of praise for his fellow countryman, stating: “It’s always a challenge pitting my wits against Joe, he has developed a team that is right at the top of the world game. They are one, if not the hardest team in the world to play against.”
England coach, Eddie Jones, commented: “Ireland are continually evolving their game under Joe. What was quite a stand-out in the autumn tests was the number of passes they made.
“They increased their passing quite considerably, decreased their kicking. But Six Nations is a different beast, we’ll just wait and see.”
Jones has made no secret of the fact that Ireland are his number one target in this year’s tournament, not only because they play them first, this Saturday, but because he believes that victory over the second-ranked team in the world would be the ideal launch-pad for England’s World Cup preparations.
He elaborated further on his approach, saying: “There are two contests against Ireland. One is in the air, the other is on the ground. We have got to win both of those to win the game. We will pick a side that’s geared up to win both.”
Next week, Ireland’s focus will switch to the considerable challenge presented by Scotland at Murrayfield.
Still smarting from their unexpected defeat away to the Scots two years ago, Ireland will have more than just Six Nations points at stake this year.
Both sides will be looking for a significant psychological advantage ahead of their opening encounter at the forthcoming World Cup.
Scottish rugby is currently on a high as their two representatives in the European Champions Cup, Glasgow and Edinburgh, both reached the final eight for the first time.
As a team, Scotland have always been able to provide one-off performances that can challenge the very best sides in world rugby.
Under Gregor Townsend’s perceptive tutelage, the team has developed considerably and nobody should underestimate their capability.
Townsend has been doing his homework on Ireland’s development and agrees with Eddie Jones that they are a different proposition to the 2018 version that swept to the title last year, with the subtle changes not lost on the former Scottish international.
“They are getting better and are evolving their game-plan. There are parts of their attack shape that have changed and what they are looking to do with the forwards, and Johnny Sexton has had a slight evolution in his game,” he said.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 27, 2019
“They are very efficient and effective in looking after the ball, a very consistent team. You won’t get a poor performance from them.”
As ever France are something of an unknown quantity. They open the tournament this Friday evening playing hosts to Wales in what could be a closely fought encounter. They visit the Aviva in the penultimate series of matches on 9 March.
They will be out for revenge after Ireland snatched victory from their grasp in Paris last year, when Johnny Sexton produced his outrageous winning drop goal with the final play of the game.
Quite possibly Ireland’s toughest match this year will be the finale at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Their recent record in Wales has not been good. Losing 23-16 in 2015 and 22-9 two years ago.
Wales had a very encouraging autumn series culminating in a 20-11 victory over South Africa and despite the poor performances of their club sides in Europe this season, the national team has grown in confidence recently and have high hopes of an impressive Six Nations.
Warren Gatland said: “Ireland are arguably the best side in the world at present. We’ve had a pretty successful strategy against them in the past and we are looking to do that at the end of this year’s tournament.
“They are tough to play against, with their ability to retain the ball, particularly if they get into your 22.
“Their conversion rate is excellent, whether it is three points through Johnny Sexton or getting over the line. They are a team you really have to keep your discipline against.”
Schmidt has never taken the pre-tournament utterances from his competing coaches too seriously. He will have a detailed game plan for each of his team’s opponents and the unique threats they each pose.
He may even have the opportunity to ‘smell the roses’ as he hopefully enjoys his final Six Nations tournament.