Ireland entered last season's Six Nations as back-to-back reigning champions, yet in recognising the World Cup fallout and a first championship since the 1990s without either of the twin totems, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul Connell, Joe Schmidt set a target of finishing in the top half of the table. As in those title-winning campaigns, he is setting the bar a little higher this time, namely a top-two finish.
While this is an acknowledgement of Ireland’s November campaign, the caveat is clear evidence that the autumnal window marked an upward curve for all the contenders as well.
“The last three years I kinda had to put the pin in the wall and make a marker,” said the Ireland head coach at his fourth media launch for the world’s oldest international tournament at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in London.
“I think I said in the first two years that a top-two finish would be something I would be really happy with. Last year, just on the back of losing so much experience and so much ability through injury, it was a bit of a rebuilding time for us. I think we built not too badly.
"I think it is going to be more competitive than ever but again it would be great if we could get a top-two finish. England are obviously incredibly tough, I think France are going to be a tough as well.
“I think Wales are the sleeping giant, we have had trouble getting ahead of them in the Millennium before and if you remember last year England totally dominated them for the first maybe 50/60 minutes and Wales could have won that match. They scored some great late tries and they have the firepower to really challenge as well.”
Also noting the improved strength in depth of Ireland’s opening opponents Scotland, he added: “Hell, Italy beat South Africa. Nothing is going to come easy. I think this is going to be an unbelievably good Six Nations.”
The Irish provinces having upped their game as well, Ireland have shortened to around 9/4 or 2/1 second favourites, after reigning Grand Slam champions England, who have won 14 on the spin and whom Ireland host on the final Saturday.
“I would think that England would still be favourites but I am sure our odds would have shortened as compared to last year because I think there has been some visible growth in the team and we have tried to expand the depth.
“But nothing protects you from injuries to key players and we talked about Conor [Murray] before,” said Schmidt in reference to a scrumhalf who is evidently more indispensable than most. “That could still happen and derail you a bit, but hopefully we will be as well prepared as we can be.”
Speaking of which, of course, Glasgow are bulk suppliers to the Scottish squad, with a 16-strong contingent, and their all-Scottish line-up for the European Cup encounter with Munster which festered the feud between the two led to even Murray himself talking publicly of the way he was targeted that day, notably by Josh Strauss and Jonny Gray.
“What happened in that game is probably done and dusted now,” said Schmidt. “It was fairly public that there was dissatisfaction and I totally understand Conor being disappointed with how it happened. You can’t charge a ball down from the blindside; you have got to go through the standing leg and the potential for injury there is clearly evident. You only have to see how Conor just managed to lift his foot in that first 25 seconds, otherwise his foot is injured, [with] potential ACL, MCL, the whole shebang. I think that is the past. It will be incredibly intense, incredibly combative but I certainly don’t anticipate anything like that happening.”
Schmidt's Scotland counterpart and good mate Vern Cotter, with whom Schmidt soldiered at Clermont Auvergne for four years, maintained that Glasgow had not targeted Murray.
“There was a discussion afterwards and some of it went to the press. I’ve talked to the coaches and the players and it was not a deliberate tactic to injure Conor Murray. He is a key member of the team, as any halfback or decision-maker is, so there was pressure applied on him at certain parts of the game. But there was no deliberate attempt to injure the player. It was unfortunate what came out in the press. There will be pressure applied on players, but all done within the laws of the game.”
Cotter also forecast that “at the end of the Six Nations we will see which of the two teams – Ireland or England – are at the top of their game.”
Hearing this drew a wry smile from Schmidt, who expects “a torrid time” in Murrayfield.
“I’m sure VC said that. A little more expectation on my shoulders and a little off his shoulders maybe? He has got bigger shoulders than I have. Just to throw a bit more back on his, he has done a super job. They have more depth than I have ever known them to have,” said Schmidt, adding that the Scots “have come a heck of a long way” since Ireland won 40-10 on so-called Super Saturday in Murrayfield two years ago.
“You look at where they were and look at where they are now and I certainly don’t anticipate a similar score at all.”