CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND -- Former Ireland international Ronan O'Gara believes this year's Six Nations will be a two-horse race between title holders England and his in-form countrymen.
After a difficult Six Nations campaign in 2017 that included losses to Scotland and Wales, Ireland have built plenty of momentum since denying England a Grand Slam in the final match of last year's competition.
They've won seven Tests in a row, while Leinster's and Munster's brilliant domestic form this season would suggest they're one of front runners for the 2018 title.
O'Gara -- who was one of the stars of the last Irish team to win the Grand Slam in 2009 -- would be surprised to see any coach other than Eddie Jones or Joe Schmidt leading a serious challenge.
"For me it's between Ireland and England. England are a serious side, we all like to find faults in them but sometimes you have to say fair play to them," O'Gara said as he faced the media for the first time since taking on the role of assistant coach at Super Rugby champions the Crusaders in New Zealand.
"The great thing about Ireland is that they're consistently performing under Joe Schmidt. He's an excellent coach and the whole of Ireland are very happy with him and very proud of him, and he has the players playing for him."
Ireland go into the tournament with a nice balance of youth and experience. Eight of their players have over 50 Test caps, while the likes of Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale have added some excitement to a well established backline.
There's plenty of fervour around uncapped outside back Jordan Larmour, 20, only heightened by the absence from the squad of France-bound Simon Zebo.
But O'Gara urged the Ireland set up not to rush the development of Larmour -- whose performances the former British & Irish Lion summed up as "incredible" -- or burden his young shoulders with too much pressure.
"He does [look very sharp] but as you appreciate, how much has he been analysed? How much time is he getting on the ball?" O'Gara said. "When you become known, the rules change.
"Don't expect too much from these guys."
Ireland face France in their opening game in Paris, a country O'Gara knows all too well after his four seasons spent in the coaching set up at Racing 92.
France won the last meeting between the two sides at the Stade de France in 2016, but O'Gara can't see that result being replicated in what will be Les Bleus' first game under Jacques Brunel.
"I think the French are in a mess," O'Gara said bluntly.
"I would be disappointed [with a loss]. It is an intimidating ground, it is the first game, the French are a team where bizarrely they can find confidence from the game itself as opposed to what's happened before the game, but for me all roads point to an Irish victory."
O'Gara is enjoying his new job and life in Christchurch, joking that it is the first time he has ever been exposed to the sun following a career spent largely in south-west Ireland.
The former Irish international admitted it was a "selfish" decision to take his fluent French-speaking children and family away from Paris, and while he's taken a significant pay cut to leave Racing for the Crusaders, he's always wanted to experience first hand what he describes as a "mythical club."
"It's obviously important to support your family but I've never been driven by that, I've been driven my medals and reputation," O'Gara said.
"We could all be gone tomorrow, and that's one of the most important things that drives me. Of course there's the European leagues but that could be for another day."