Ireland still the standard bearers in the North?
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones acknowledged on Friday that Six Nations opponents Ireland, standing between his team and a Grand Slam, were the standard bearers for Rugby Union in the Northern Hemisphere.
Under wily coach Joe Schmidt, the experienced Irish team have racked up a number of impressive performances, including recently beating the All Blacks twice, on the back of strong showings in the Pro14 and European action by their four provincial teams.
“In the last 18 months, they’ve probably set the standard in Northern Hemisphere international rugby,” Jones said ahead of Saturday’s match at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, where a win would seal a Grand Slam for Wales.
“They’ve claimed a few big scalps and they’ve been, arguably, the most consistent team.
“We’re well aware of their calibre and the results they’ve had in the last 18 months.”
Schmidt will step down as Ireland coach after this year’s Rugby World Cup and it is a similar story for fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland, in charge of Wales.
“He’s got a bit more of his contract to go, so he’s not done just yet!” said Jones, who will win his 134th Test cap on Saturday.
“It’s his last Six Nations, but there’s a bit to go yet so we’re not going to let him sail off into the sunset just yet.
“He came in with one and it would be nice for him to leave with one. There is a big 80 minutes before we can look at the romantic and sentimental side of it.”
Jones was part of the Wales teams that previously won Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012, but he admitted that this third tilt at a Six Nations clean sweep was “different”.
“There are a lot of different people to the ones that have been involved before,” the 33-year-old said.
“It’s nice to be able to do it at home, but there is pressure.
“I’ve said before, the closer you get to something like this, the further away you can be sometimes. We’re very grounded, we know we have to work hard.
“In every performance we’ve had, there have been areas for improvement.”
Jones added that pressure for a rugby player was a “privilege”.
“Ask any rugby player – this is what you dream about,” he said. “We’re at home, with what is going to be a great atmosphere and these are the occasions you work for.”
The Irish, however, can still win the title should they beat the Welsh and Scotland be victorious over England in Saturday’s final game.
But Ireland captain Rory Best said his team’s thoughts had been focused on a very confident Wales side.
“We posted a performance last week we felt was a lot more reflective of us,” Best said of their comprehensive 26-14 victory over France, the Irish having lost their opening game to England 32-20.
“But to win an away game in the Six Nations full stop is tough. To come up against a [Wales] team on a massive high with the run of wins they’re on, four in a row, looking for a Grand Slam in this place, an extremely tough place to win… We’re under no illusions about what performance it’s going to take.
“Tomorrow is about taking a step forward, to increase the performance.
“We know that in our group, we have to perform better and we’re very much focused on that.”
Best, who will play his 64th Six Nations match on Saturday as part of the 116 caps he has won for Ireland, said the yearly event had been “an incredibly special tournament for me and my family”.
“It’s a fantastic tournament that is a proper, traditional rugby tournament.”