Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt believes Wales can challenge England for Six Nations glory
England come into the Six Nations unbeaten in 14 games under head coach Eddie Jones and as defending Grand Slam champions.
Wales finished second last year after failing to complete a spirited comeback against England at Twickenham in the fourth game.
Wales recovered from a 32-8 defeat to Australia at the start of the autumn Tests to beat South Africa 27-13, recording narrow victories over Argentina and Japan along the way.
It was an upturn in results after a demoralising whitewash at the hands of New Zealand in the summer.
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Wales are sleeping giants
And Schmidt believes the Welsh have improved since the All Blacks pummelling.
“We have to strive to be in the top two again (because) I think this will be the most competitive tournament in the four years I’ve been here,” Schmidt said.
“Obviously England are top of the pile and have been indomitable. They’ve been impressive. To get three wins in Australia (in the summer) was exceptional.
“But I think Wales are sleeping giants. From England’s dominate early in the game (against Wales last year) and the way Wales came back. Right at the end it looked like they would score. That’s the quality they have.”
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Scotland were for the second time in just over a year denied a famous victory over Australia in the autumn, while France came close to overturning both the All Blacks and Wallabies.
And Schmidt has warned his Ireland side, which beat the All Blacks in Chicago during the autumn, nevertheless face a tough task to just make the top two in the tournament.
“So many teams have good continuity coming from November,” Schmidt said.
“The likes of Scotland with the way Glasgow are playing at the moment and that being the core of their team.
“They bring in the class of guys like Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray from Toulouse. There’s a lot going for a lot of teams."
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He added: “France against the All Blacks. If Beauden Barrett didn’t get that interception, France had so many stats on their side in that game that makes them a threat.
“Italy beat South Africa. You look at the quality and personal they were up against that was a super effort.
“So when you mix that all together it’s very hard if you tied to rank one to six in two months time. A lot of people would struggle to get it right. It’s not easy to predict.”