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'The major threat to the All Blacks will come from the Northern Hemisphere in 2019'

Sean Fitzpatrick believes Ireland or England will challenge Steve Hansen’s side next year.

THE SIX NATIONS is everything for Joe Schmidt right now but the Ireland head coach has already done plenty of planning for further down the line too.

We saw Schmidt introduce a raft of new players in 2017 – the likes of Bundee Aki, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter – as he added to the depth of his squad with the 2019 World Cup in mind.

Joe Schmidt It's a big year for Joe Schmidt and Ireland. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

2018 is now an absolutely pivotal year for Schmidt and his Ireland team, as they attempt to regain the Six Nations title for the first time in three years, while a tour to Australia awaits this summer.

Looking further ahead again, the All Blacks will be back in Dublin in November for what should be a thrilling re-match between two of the best in the world.

There is even some possibility of Ireland facing the Kiwis a second time later this year, as they did in 2016 with a game in Chicago as well as that brutal clash in Dublin.

Taking on the All Blacks a year out from the 2019 World Cup will be a key testing ground for Schmidt’s squad, while England also get a shot at the back-to-back world champions in November.

“It will be the last time we play each other before the World Cup in Japan,” says All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick.

“Psychologically, probably more so for England and Ireland than the All Blacks, it’s about putting a stake in the ground.”

While the All Blacks themselves often like to say they’ve been focusing only on themselves, we can be certain that they will be watching the upcoming Six Nations intently – both with a view to those November games and the 2019 World Cup.

“The All Blacks are going to pay close attention to it, as they always do,” says Fitzpatrick. “We’re mid-cycle at the moment so teams are trying things. Injuries have played a major part in the development of so many teams over the past 12 to 18 months, especially with the All Blacks – they used 55 players last year, which was unheard of.

AIG PR Shoot 28/05/2014 AIG Ambassador Sean Fitzpatrick. Source: Action Images

“As I said to Steve Hansen at the World Rugby awards, not one of those players didn’t deserve to be an All Black, so they’re doing something right.

“It’s the same with Ireland and the same, probably even more so, with England.

“I’ve always felt over the last 12 months that the major threat to the All Blacks will come from the Northern Hemisphere in 2019. I’m sure they’ll be paying close attention to the Six Nations, which looks like being one of the closest fought.”

Indeed, this Six Nations should be keenly contested, with Scotland having grown under Gregor Townsend, Ireland being confident under Schmidt and Eddie Jones’ England still the favourites despite their head coach’s protestations.

“I think it’s going to be one of the best Six Nations so far in terms of how competitive it will be,” says Fitzpatrick.

“Ireland are in a great place and they’re going to be very difficult to beat, especially at home. Travelling to Twickenham is going to be a major challenge but they’ve done it there before.

“Joe Schmidt is one of the best coaches around and has shown that with a bit of talent he can develop a team that can beat anyone.

“Then England are the defending champions and they’ve got unbelievable depth. With the injuries they have, how long can they go on replacing these players, but one thing they’re doing is gaining real experience. As Eddie keeps on telling us, the main thing is 2019.”

As for the All Blacks, who will almost certainly be the favourites for the 2019 World Cup whatever happens this year, Fitzpatrick has been thrilled to see them continuing to grow their own depth.

New Zealand All Blacks Asafo Aumua Asafo Aumua is one of the the latest Kiwi rugby sensations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He cites the performances of props Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames as being among the greatest positives to come from 2017, a year in which Fitzpatrick feels the Lions showed the All Blacks that they could be exposed with a certain brand of rugby.

While the likes of Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito and Malakai Fekitoa have left for France and Lima Sopoaga will depart for Wasps this year, Fitzpatrick has confidence that New Zealand rugby can keep filling in those holes.

“Ultimately, it affects the quality of the club rugby and Super Rugby, but you look at the number of players coming through,” says the former hooker.

“You look at Lima Sopoaga and he’s got Beauden Barrett ahead of him and not going anywhere, and Damian McKenzie is being groomed and will start at 10 for the Chiefs this year, so Sopoaga is thinking he might as well move on and make some money.

“There’s a lot of depth here. Even losing Tawera Kerr-Barlow, there’s TJ Perenara now. There are young players that many people might not have heard as much as. You only have to look at Vaea Fifita, the loose forward who was so good in the Championship.

“The young hooker Asafo Aumua who everyone is just raving about, Jack Goodhue from Northland, so many others – there’s so much depth there.”

While Schmidt can’t do anything about the All Blacks right now, they will play a key role in Ireland’s journey further down the track.

AIG Ambassador Sean Fitzpatrick is helping promote AIG Ireland’s Road Safety Campaign and Driver Telematics solution to help drivers assess their driving habits and earn reduced car insurance premiums in return for good performance. For more information, please visit www.aig.ie

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Murray Kinsella

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