Eddie Jones insists Ireland must shoulder the burden of being the best team in the world when England visit Dublin on Saturday and warned: “Praise can make you weak”.
The Six Nations rivals clash in an early title showdown that Joe Schmidt’s Grand Slam holders enter as favourites on the strength of a standout 2018 that included a home win over world champions New Zealand in November.
England have gambled by retaining Elliot Daly at full-back, overlooking the aerial expertise of Mike Brown despite the kicking threat posed by Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
Also present are Manu Tuilagi at inside centre and Jack Nowell on the left wing, the latter described by Jones as a “street-fighter” ideally suited to the ferocious welcome expected at the Aviva Stadium.
England’s head coach knows Ireland are viewed as emphatic favourites to make a triumphant start to the defence of their crown but refuses to cast his side as underdogs.
“It’s well documented that no-one thinks we can win but I can tell you everyone inside our camp believes we can win,” said Jones,
“It’s fun. You want to play the best in the world away from home and Ireland are the best in the world at the moment.
“Everyone is writing them up and they have got to carry that expectation round, so we’re excited about the prospect of playing there. Praise can make you weak.
“The boys are fit, they’re together. They’re serious, but they’ve got a smile on their face. They’re good to go and they want to make England proud.
“I never use the status of being underdogs, it’s never been one of the tricks of the trade because we never think we’re not better than the opposition.
“I’d hate to go into a game thinking we weren’t better than the opposition, that we need surprises or tricks to win the game.
“We don’t need that. We want Ireland to be at their absolute best, we want to be at our best and then for the best team to win.”
How England deal with the onslaught of high balls awaiting in Dublin depends on their faith in Daly, who was exposed at times during the autumn series.
“Elliot’s been our first choice since the South Africa tour and we’re confident he can do a great job. He gives us a great attacking game,” Jones said.
“Dropping a couple of balls is not an indication to me that he hasn’t done well because there are so many other factors involved.
“We’re much better at tracking back now to protect our catchers, which is a massive part of the game now.
“Elliot is a great catcher of the ball. He’s been doing a lot of work with (England high performance manager) Neil Craig, who’s from an Aussie Rules background.
“We’ve got every bit of confidence in him – and we’ve got confidence in our team supporting him well.”
Jones has resisted the urge to pick Nowell at openside flanker after stating previously that the Exeter wing would also prosper in the back row, but he has been given the freedom to put his jackling skills to good use.
Tuilagi has been selected at inside centre – where he has played little rugby – to make his first Six Nations start for six injury-blighted years after profiting from Ben Te’o’s side strain.
“Ben and Manu are similar players in that they’re gainline players. They’re big guys and we expected a lot of traffic down that channel,” Jones said.
“We need that type of player to play 12 for us this week. We prefer him to play 13, but that’s not the situation this week so he needs to play 12. Certainly we’ll use Manu to full advantage on first phase.”
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Ireland centre Bundee Aki hopes to make a statement as he goes up against England juggernaut Manu Tuilagi in Dublin.
Aki “stayed away” from his opposite number the last time the pair faced each other – 12 years ago in a college game – but he will see plenty of the 27-year-old as Ireland begin their Six Nations defence on Saturday.
New Zealand-born Aki’s rugby odyssey has seen him settle with Connacht, where he is now the passionate heartbeat of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.
The former Waikato Chiefs centre enjoyed a sixth-form stint at Truro College and while there he faced Tuilagi, who then played for John Cleveland College.
Aki said: “I remember playing against Manu in England when I went to school in Cornwall, to Truro College, we had a game and he was on the wing.
“He was a young kid back then. I remember playing that game. It was me and (Newcastle and Fiji utility back) Josh Matavesi playing in that same team.
“That was the only time, back then, but I didn’t go up against him as he was obviously out on the wing so I stayed away. If you see my photos back then I wasn’t big, I was a very skinny kid.”
Aki is ready to face the modern-day Tuilagi, who will make his first Six Nations start since 2013.
“The likes of Owen Farrell and Manu, they are very physical,” Aki said. “Farrell is deceptively strong and Manu is just the same. You can see it in the way he carries the ball.
“In any game you play against the English, you’ve just got to make sure your physicality is up there. You can’t go in there thinking they will play a wide game and you forget about the physicality.
“That’s your first point of contact, making sure you make a statement and make a mark on that.”
Ireland’s boldest selection call in some time has been for head coach Joe Schmidt to shift centre Robbie Henshaw to full-back for Saturday’s hotly-anticipated battle.
Stalwart full-back Rob Kearney is fit but Schmidt has handed Henshaw just his second cap in the number 15 shirt.
Asked what Henshaw brings to 15, Schmidt said: “I think a game intelligence. You have got to be able to anticipate play really well and connect in that pendulum with the back-three.
“He is exceptional in the air, akin to Rob Kearney.
“I think he has the full spectrum of skills required to play the position and we would love it if that was evident on Saturday.”
Asked if it would be premature to write off Kearney’s Test career, Schmidt added: “Yes, definitely. There isn’t one big game where Rob has not had an impact in big moments.”
France boss Jacques Brunel believes Test match rookie Romain Ntamack is “a strong pick” for Friday’s Six Nations opener against Wales.
On the surface, Brunel has adopted a bold approach with his midfield selections, partnering 19-year-old Ntamack with richly-talented Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana.
Ntamack’s debut comes 25 years after his father Emile first played for Les Bleus – Wales were also the opponents – and much is expected of the Toulouse player.
But while Ntamack can look forward to his big chance, France’s defensive linchpin Mathieu Bastareaud – a regular during Brunel’s reign – has been omitted and not even made the matchday 23.
“Romain Ntamack is a strong pick,” head coach Brunel said. “Of course, he is a lad whose qualities we all know.
“He has shown since the start of the season that he is capable of adapting to the levels he has played at.
“He (Bastareaud) is an important player in the squad. He has definitely not been thrown out.”
But however much flair France might possess behind the scrum, there is no escaping the presence of a huge pack that has a combined weight of just over 150 stones.
And that would suggest they will target Wales in the scrums and mauls as Les Bleus aim for only a second victory form the last eight starts against their Paris visitors.
Key to the French forward effort will be South Africa-born lock Paul Willemse, who joins Ntamack in winning a first cap.
The former Junior Springbok received his French passport only two months ago, and Brunel has wasted no time thrusting him into the Test match arena.
France, though, have it all to do to make an impression on this season’s tournament, with Wales, England and Ireland clear favourites to feature in the title shake-up.
Les Bleus have not been crowned Six Nations champions since 2010, while they have claimed just two top-three finishes during the subsequent eight seasons.
Defeat to Wales would immediately put them on the back foot, but a win against Warren Gatland’s team will have the opposite effect and set up an intriguing Twickenham appointment with England on Sunday week.