The Six Nations will boil down to a final-weekend title decider between Ireland and Wales, according to Gordon D’Arcy.
Former Ireland centre D’Arcy has tipped Joe Schmidt’s men to take their title defence right to the wire, when facing Wales in Cardiff on March 16.
The former Leinster star insists he is “not convinced” by England’s autumn resurgence, branding Warren Gatland’s Wales the main challengers to Ireland’s 2018 crown.
Ireland will kick-start a hectic 2019 by hosting England in Dublin on Saturday, with D’Arcy confident in the hosts’ chances.
“I think it is a decider on the final day between Wales and Ireland,” said D’Arcy, speaking on behalf of ITV.
“With both carrying form from the November internationals, and more strength in depth across their squads.
“The freshness of centrally contracted players for both could be a telling difference from the rest of the pack.
“The more success a team has, the larger a target they become; Ireland are a giant target at the moment.
“However, Ireland have become very adept at looking after their own performances, I don’t see them wavering from that formula during the Six Nations.
“They can’t control everything, so a bounce of a ball may go against them or a decision. Can they win? Yes, but they might need a little luck along the way.”
England have already ploughed into the mind games ahead of Saturday’s tournament opener, with boss Eddie Jones claiming fly-half Johnny Sexton has the “bat phone to the referee”.
Defence coach John Mitchell has since claimed Ireland will try to “bore the s**t out of us”, in a withering attack on Joe Schmidt’s gameplan.
Ireland saw off England at Twickenham to complete the Grand Slam last season, before finishing 2018 second in the world rankings after beating New Zealand in Dublin.
England sit fourth in the world standings, behind Wales, while New Zealand retain top spot despite November’s Dublin defeat.
Asked to rate England’s chances, D’Arcy said: “I’m not convinced, they won elsewhere and nearly beat the All Blacks (in November).
“The way they played looked more like individuals under pressure to perform rather than a team that pulled together to win close games.
“But it is a good place to build from and Eddie (Jones) is the master of that.”