Joe Schmidt believes next Saturday’s curtain-raiser against England could ruin his last Championship in charge as Ireland begin their Guinness Six Nations defence with a mouth-watering clash in Dublin.
The 53-year-old is stepping down at the end of the 2019 World Cup and begins his farewell tour against Eddie Jones’ men, where they will attempt to seal a third straight win against the 2016 Grand Slam winners.
The match is likely to be as good as billed with England, who finished fifth a year ago, looking rejuvenated after an autumn which saw them win three matches from four and push New Zealand all the way in a narrow defeat at Twickenham.
Jones also has a near-fully fit squad to choose from, with the likes of Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Manu Tuilagi all back firing – adding further bulk to an intimidating England squad.
And the Australian has promised a physical contest at the Aviva Stadium, something Schmidt is wary of ahead of one of the blue-riband matches of the Championship.
“We don’t have the same size of players, it could be a point of difference for them. Eddie will come up with a strategy and I respect him as a strategist,” he said.
“He said he was going to bring some brutality and he has some players who can bring that.
“I don’t think we are the clear favourites. I have enormous respect for England.
“We have benefited from a really good first quarter the last two times they have been in Dublin, it has been an arm-wrestle.
“The psyche is one of enormous respect. You know if you don’t get things right, England can get a long way away from you.
“They are on an upwards swing. They did struggle during the Six Nations last year but were unlucky to not go through unbeaten in the autumn.”
Schmidt has been boosted on the eve of the Championship, with locks Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne hopeful of returning from finger and knee problems midway through, while World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton is expected to face England.
The fly-half, whose memorable drop-goal secured Ireland a dramatic win in France during the opening round last season, has struggled with a knee problem but Schmidt believes he will be ready.
“He will train fully on Thursday, and we will then ramp up his training,” he added.
“Our expectation is that he will get through it without any problems. Johnny is confident and the medical staff are confident.”