Wednesday 24 July 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Anglo-Irish Champions Cup clashes will have little bearing on the big one'


Jones: Full squad to choose from. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Jones: Full squad to choose from. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Eddie Jones kept his powder pretty dry at yesterday's squad announcement, preferring to leave the calibre of the 35 players he named do the talking for a change.

Although two rounds of club games may yet claim a player or two, the Australian was able to justifiably claim that the panel he named for this year's Six Nations is the strongest he's had since coming into the job in 2016.

Unusually, he has close to a full deck to choose from.

His captain Dylan Hartley and his predecessor Chris Robshaw are out, as are Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Sam Underhill, who was so good in November, but there is more than enough class and power in the squad to cause Joe Schmidt concern.

Both coaches will tune into this weekend's European action with interest but while the three Champions Cup provinces face English opposition there will be little cross-over to the big one in just over two weeks' time.

Perhaps if Leinster were facing Saracens we might have something of a form-line to read, but the spread of England internationals is too thin to draw any real conclusions.

There may be the odd one-on-one match-up; Keith Earls will get a chance to size up Jack Nowell; Joe Launchbury may face off against James Ryan and Devin Toner, and Ulster's Irish contingent might get a close look at Manu Tuilagi.

Of the three English clubs, only Exeter Chiefs have a chance of joining Saracens in the last eight. Wasps have yet to win a game, while Leicester Tigers are playing for pride and to keep the recent momentum going under Geordan Murphy.

Schmidt will hope to channel the positivity of the provinces' form into a winning start to the Six Nations, but Jones will not be of a mind to link the two.

Both coaches will whisk their teams off to Portugal to reinforce their own systems before the big kick-off and the Australian will make the trip to Dublin determined to lay down a marker at the beginning of a World Cup year.

Already, he has labelled Ireland as the world's top side, describing Schmidt's men as "a good team" who "deserve all the praise they've been getting.

"They have a number of exceptional players in their team," he continued, pausing before adding: "They have a very methodical game plan that maximises the strength of their team."

However, he was clear when he stated his belief that England can beat Ireland in Dublin - a result that would upset the odds with bookies offering an eight-point spread in Ireland's favour.

The presence of a fit Tuilagi, both Vunipola brothers and all of his Sarries contingent is tantalising for Jones whose team have regained some of their lost momentum this season.

When they arrived in Dublin two seasons ago the former Japan coach looked bullet-proof, but Ireland's Grand Slam-denying win set the teams on very different trajectories.

Ireland have only lost once since, whereas England have suffered six defeats in the same period and the mood music surrounding the team that won the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations has soured.

November was a tonic and the return of big Billy Vunipola will help lift English spirits.

Fit and firing, the Sarries No 8 is one of the most effective players in the world, a ball carrier of renown with hands to die for, who occupies defenders and creates space for others.

Brian O'Driscoll consistently speaks highly of Tuilagi who has been tortured with injuries but is enjoying a rare run of games. His partnership with ex-Leinster centre Ben Te'o could be devastating. Chris Ashton, Joe Cokanasiga and Jonny May are electric wings who can trouble any defence.

Owen Farrell will captain the team in Hartley's absence and will relish going up against his father, while Jones has a forward pack capable of troubling Ireland's set-piece.

Ever since the fixtures were announced, this one has looked like a pivotal moment in the 2019 calendar - setting the tone for the year ahead.

Seeing both coaches show their hand has only whetted the appetite.

This weekend, the phony war will continue but the year will all come down to the destination of the Webb Ellis trophy.

Asked if beating Ireland would hand his team the mantle of the world's best side, Jones was dismissive.

"We want to be the best team in the world on November 2, 2019 at approximately 9.45pm. That's the only time that interests us," he said.

The countdown to that moment begins in Dublin in 15 days' time.

Irish Independent

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