English Rugby Journalist Stuart Barnes joined Wednesday Night Rugby to discuss Ireland, Marcus Smith and the Six Nations.
This is the time of year where the hype has built.
It's time for us to get excited about the Six Nations. Ireland are going to win it because we've spent 12 months looking at our failings from last year. We've got the best young players in the world, our veterans are ageless and our new coach has figured everything out. We've lost the run of ourselves as we always do.
But it's not us doing it this time. Instead, it's English journalist Stuart Barnes.
Barnes joined Wednesday Night Rugby and explained that this could be the best standard of rugby played in a Six Nations for 20 years. And he believes Ireland are the best of that standard entering the first weekend. It doesn't mean they're certain to win the competition, but it is encouraging to hear.
The former fly half explained the differences he saw in Autumn.
"There's still a big reliance on ball-retention," Barnes said.
"But the massive difference is in the dying eras of the Joe Schmidt era, it was ball-retention over everything so it got very slow. I would say without being overly critical, if you looked at CJ Stander it was pick and drive. He got these plaudits for how many carries and how many meters but defensively one person was just dropping off.
"Ireland had men falling to the ground.
"You're not going to get five or six decoy runners if you're not playing at any pace. Ireland have transformed the pace of their game and that is the difference for me."
Stander was a great player for Ireland. It's likely not his fault that Joe Schmidt put such a reliance on him in attack. But it's also true that he was a ball stopper. He slowed Ireland's attack down and had many moments in space where he chose not to give a pass that Jack Conan or Caelan Doris do now. The extra pass is often the difference.
Changing the style of play and incorporating some emerging talents has pushed Ireland to the peak of rugby, according to Barnes.
"I felt from the England game onwards, through to Argentina, I thought that was notable. Having beaten New Zealand and having quite a few different players, they went and thrashed an Argentina team who had given France a decent game. Latter part of 2021, Ireland were the best team in the world.
"Ireland I think are on current form the best team in the world."
Antoine Dupont and his friends might still have something to say about it though so we can't get too far ahead of ourselves. France will play England and Ireland at home, so they have the edge in a six-game competition. But Ireland have won in Paris before.
"But on their day, France might just be a little bit better."
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