The race for the 'underdog' tag

Sun, 28 Jan 2018 02:55

SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: It appears the 'underdog' tag has become almost more popular than winning the championship.

England coach Eddie Jones say that Ireland are the favourites to win the Six Nations, but Irish coach Joe Schmidt is refusing to play along.

Indeed the 52-year-old Kiwi - who has guided Ireland to two Six Nations crowns himself in 2014 and 2015 - has lobbed what he termed Jones's "grenade" back at the Australian.

England are chasing a third straight Six Nations title and have lost only once in 23 matches under Jones, but that defeat came against Ireland and prevented a Grand Slam last year.

The Irish may not be the bookmakers favourites, but that victory and three Test wins in November mean Schmidt's side are deserving to be the second choice.

At the Six Nations launch this past week, Jones, famed for his  psychological banter, said: "I think the expectation is high, I'm sure the [Irish] fans think that, I'm sure their sponsors think that."

"I think the expectation on Ireland is high, and it's how they handle it now, isn't it? It's different going into the tournament as favourites, rather than being the underdog," Jones added.

"It's a different position to be in but they've got a very good coach, a great leadership team and I'm sure they'll cope with it."

However, with away games at Paris and Twickenham - where England are unbeaten under Jones - on their agenda Schmidt felt justified in downplaying title-winning talk.

"I know Eddie is excited about the people he's got, he's just not telling you that," said Schmidt, who went on to argue that Jones had more players and more time to prepare.

"It must be on the back of having 12 teams to select from and the eight days he's had in camp as opposed to us having three.

"I know Eddie from old, and I know he's going to throw in the odd grenade, and fair play to him for doing it. It keeps us on our toes.

"Bookies don’t make money by being wrong. You've got a team there that’s won 22 out of 23 Test matches over the last two years."

Schmidt, who has transformed the Irish since taking over in 2013 and led them victories over all the southern hemisphere sides including a historic win against New Zealand in 2016, points out that he too has a long injury list including such stalwarts as flank Sean O'Brien and utility back Jared Payne.    

However, Schmidt has a knack for uncovering and blooding new talent to great effect.

Much is expected of 20-year-old fullback Jordan Larmour - although he has the formidable figure of fellow Leinster player Rob Kearney to displace - while those who impressed in November like Jacob Stockdale, Bundee Aki and Andrew Conway will be seeking to cement their places.

The Irish side will revolve round the world class halfback pairing of scrum-half Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton while other experienced hands like skipper Rory Best and Keith Earls lend a hard, streetwise edge to the team.

Schmidt, who admits he and the team are "pretty nervous" about their opening match against France says he has not entertained thoughts of the final match at Twickenham on March 27 becoming a title showdown.  

"This Six Nations we have the youngest squad we have had and there is a degree of excitement in that," Schmidt said.

"I look at other teams as well and see the way they are trying to develop. I think it is going to be interesting.

"Our individuals are different this year. I do believe there is a core but there are a lot of guys who do not have that many caps.

"As I said it is our youngest group, therefore, it will be interesting to see how they develop the way they play."

Agence France-Presse

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Team P W D L Pts
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Wales 5 3 0 2 15
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France 5 2 0 3 11
England 5 2 0 3 10
Italy 5 0 0 5 1