By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Ireland coach Joe Schmidt expects England counterpart Eddie Jones to launch an array of wind-ups, mind-games and verbal hand-grenades ahead of their opening Six Nations clash next month.
Even the possibility of espionage cannot be entirely dismissed, it seems, as the two men enjoyed a light-hearted build-up to what could be a seismic meeting.
The Feb. 2 opener in Dublin pits the defending champions’ considered New Zealander against England’s wily Australian strategist, who has been busy stirring the pot already.
“Eddie went past me just before and he said: ‘Right, let’s get ready for a few grenades’,” Schmidt told reporters at the tournament’s media launch with all the coaches and captains on Wednesday.
“He’s always incredibly hard to read, Eddie. You don’t know if he threw that in as a comment to distract you or as something he’s genuinely thinking about.”
Jones has already been at his mercurial and mischievous best this month, suggesting winger Jack Nowell could be deployed as an extra flanker and even outright number seven for the Ireland game.
Schmidt, whose men lost just once in a dominant 2018 that included a Six Nations Grand Slam, was reserving judgement on that one — even if he could not help smiling at some of the goings on.
“I think it keeps it fresh, it does keep it entertaining. It does make me think ‘Is he serious about that?’. Is Jack Nowell going to play seven or is Tom Curry going to play seven or (Mark) Wilson going to play there?,” he said.
“I guess you want to keep the opposition guessing. Certainly once the ball gets kicked off you want to keep the opposition guessing. Eddie does a pretty good job of it.”
Schmidt said Jones had also not missed a trick when it came to wind-ups, latching onto an ongoing controversy in English soccer where Marcelo Bielsa, manager of second-tier side Leeds United, has admitted to spying on their rivals.
Jones told Britain’s Observer newspaper last weekend that he had spied on opponents while in charge of the Wallabies but stopped doing so a decade ago because it was a waste of time.
England and Ireland will be training in the sunshine of southern Portugal ahead of the opening game and Jones had already detected another opportunity to unsettle his Irish counterpart.
“They’re heading down to the Algarve, it’s 15 minutes from where we’re training and he (Jones) said: ‘Ah, I might whip across and have a look’,” said Schmidt.
“And because that’s topical at the moment, I think he just throws it in the conversation. I’ve got to say, I enjoy the banter with Eddie. He’s kind of that irrepressible character. I think he’s a smart coach.”
Jones duly played his part by responding: “We’re both in Portugal so I’m going to the airport now and buying a pair of binoculars.”
Schmidt said injured flyhalf and 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton, who is set to travel with the training squad to Portugal, had joined training on Tuesday.
“His last two days have been pretty quiet. He will train fully on Thursday when we’ll try to ramp the training up a little bit. Our expectation is that he’ll get through that without any problems at all,” said the coach.
“He’s very confident, the medical staff are confident and so are we.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ken Ferris)