Pressure on Ireland as World Cup adds extra edge to Six Nations

London (AFP) –


Ireland's status as one of the favourites to win this year's World Cup in Japan will be put to the test with the defence of their Six Nations crown.

France and Wales launch Europe's elite annual international championship in Paris on Friday before Grand Slam champions Ireland face England in Dublin a day later in a hugely anticipated clash.

The southern hemisphere 'big three' of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, whose collective hold on the World Cup has been broken only by England's 2003 triumph, have often been sniffy about the quality of rugby on display during the Six Nations, even if they've been envious of its passionate and capacity crowds.

But this year's edition could be one of the most high-calibre yet.

Three of the world's four top-ranked teams -- Ireland, Wales and England -- are involved, with Scotland and France more than capable of making their presence felt.

Ireland, yet to reach a World Cup semi-final, have long liked to portray themselves as 'plucky underdogs'.

But following their maiden home win over world champions New Zealand in November, they are no longer fooling anyone, least of all themselves, especially when the gifted Jonathan Sexton is pulling the strings at fly-half.

Not since France in 1998, however, have a side completed back-to-back Grand Slams.

"You cannot close out outside expectations, they are bound to leak in whether it is family or friends," said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt ahead of what will be his last Six Nations before the New Zealander stands down following the World Cup.

- 'Two contests' -

England, buoyed by three wins from four in November -- the lone reverse was an agonisingly narrow loss to the All Blacks -- will be looking to put last year's lowly fifth-placed finish behind them.

"There are two contests against Ireland, one in the air and one on the ground and you have to win both of those to win the game," said England coach Eddie Jones.

But should the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje all be fully fit and firing, England will have the core of a dynamic pack. Behind the scrum, though, doubts linger over their best midfield pairing.

Wales have sometimes flattered to deceive by not scoring the number of tries suggested by their back-line ability.

In-form Cardiff scrum-half Tomos Williams will make his Six Nations debut at the Stade de France, with Wales hoping the absence of injured back-row Taulupe Faletau does not prove costly against a huge French pack.

Wales coach Warren Gatland, for whom in common with compatriot Schmidt this will be his last Six Nations in charge, has even said that if the Welsh win in Paris, they'll go on to take the title.

The very best France teams have played with a mixture of forward ferocity and sublime back-line skill.

But it's a long time since they hit those heights, although the selection of uncapped teenager Romain Ntamack instead of Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield suggests coach Jacques Brunel wants to have something more than sheer power to call upon.

- Scotland expects -

With both Edinburgh and Glasgow into the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup, there is a feeling Scotland are on the cusp of something special, although the test for Gregor Townsend's men is likely to come away from Murrayfield as they try to win in Paris and at Twickenham for the first time in decades.

They will be huge favourites to beat Italy in Edinburgh on Saturday, an unfamiliar pressure.

The cruelty for Italy, on a miserable 17-game Six Nations losing streak, is that while they have improved so too have their rivals.

Italy centre Michele Campagnaro has been in fine form for English Premiership side Wasps this season, but can his team-mates give him sufficient high-quality ball?

And yet one of the enduring joys of the Six Nations is that it throws up a surprise when least expected.