Schmidt urges confidence as he puts faith in new faces
But coach admits to 'degree of trepidation' as Ireland get Six Nations defence under way
JOE SCHMIDT readily admits he operates in the realm of "worst-case-scenarios" so, while most fans are looking forward to a Six Nations of possibilities, the Ireland coach sees danger around every corner.
Potentially, next week he will be able to select from the strongest squad he has ever had since taking over. The problem is that, this week, he must begin his Championship defence without five of the men who made 2014 such a memorable year.
A look at the statistics for that campaign hint at the problems and Schmidt is well-versed in the numbers. Take Brian O'Driscoll, Andrew Trimble, Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Dave Kearney out of the equation and the coach begins to sweat.
Thus, confidence was a recurring feature of yesterday's team announcement press-briefing, as he considered a team with 186 fewer caps to their name than their vastly-experienced hosts.
He sees the Stadio Olimpico as a venue where Ireland lost their last game and needed some Ronan O'Gara heroics to escape the time before. Then, he looks at his Nos 8 through 13 and sees Conor Murray as the only one who has ever started a Six Nations game before. And yet, the nation expects the party to continue.
In Joe, they trust. He's pulled the rabbit out of the hat each and every time, so why would things grind to a halt in Rome? He might be without the men who did so much to deliver success last year, but his presence in the coaching box brings calm.
Despite his self-confessed "paranoia", Schmidt is hoping his own outward belief that this group of players can get a result at the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow will feed into his players' performance.
"I think you have to be confident; confidence, to a degree, is contagious," he said. "If I show a lack of confidence in players, players are going to start questioning themselves and you don't have time and space to question yourself when there's a lot of traffic and it's big and it's physical.
"I'm very aware of the players who are missing and what they achieved last year.
"The player of the year in Andrew Trimble, the guy who broke the most tackles was Dave Kearney. Johnny scored the most points and the most tries as well.
"For us, we have the personnel we have and I'm confident, but always with a degree of trepidation about how Saturday comes out because I think the Italian players will be highly motivated.
"I think they've worked really hard to prepare well, but I think people underestimate the challenge that Italy will be."
To counter that challenge, Schmidt has stuck with Mike Ross at tighthead. The only man to start every game the New Zealander has overseen as Ireland coach, he expressed faith in the Corkman despite Leinster jettisoning him for younger talent.
In the back-row, Jamie Heaslip's failure to train fully on Tuesday cost him his place, meaning Sean O'Brien will give his all for 50 to 60 minutes before being called ashore.
Unloading the Tullow Tank this early in the campaign was not part of the plan, but needs must.
Both Ross and O'Brien used last weekend's Wolfhounds game to play their way into the team, but it appears the half-backs down in Cork, Kieran Marmion and Ian Madigan, played their way out along with Gordon D'Arcy who the coach argued has not played enough games recently after being left on the bench at Leinster.
Iain Henderson is kept in reserve in part due to his playing an enforced 80 minutes last weekend when he was scheduled for less and also because he covers a range of positions, while Tommy O'Donnell must take his frustration at Jordi Murphy's elevation ahead of him into the No 8 shirt out on some Italian ball-carriers.
The big call remains Ian Keatley's selection at out-half and the 27-year-old must repay the faith shown in him by the coach. With Sexton's return imminent, this could be the Munster man's only chance to stake his claim.
Outside him, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne renew a partnership that Schmidt described as "promising" when they paired up against South Africa, while the November back three remains in place.
The bench is straightforward enough, with Isaac Boss's selection ahead of Marmion the only eyebrow-raiser. It seems clear that Schmidt still views the Connacht tyro as one for the future.
"It really came down to the Wolfhounds performance on the day," the coach said. "Isaac Boss probably just nailed the performance a little bit more than Kieran did, but we believe the progress is there and he'll continue to get better."
Schmidt lauded Felix Jones who gets the No 23 shirt ahead of Keith Earls, Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, citing the full-back's autumn contribution and Wolfhounds display as being enough to secure the spot covering the back three. He has played his cards and will spend the next 36 hours ensuring his players get the message and are as prepared as possible.
He hopes the camp has been shielded from the expectation that lurks beyond the walls of Carton House, and accepts that this is a tournament they will have to grow into.
A victory and signs of incremental improvement from November would mark a good start.
"Set-piece is something we will look to get some improvement out of. It was one of those things in the autumn that, we were delighted with the end result, but some of the building blocks that make up that end result probably weren't as intact as they had been previously.
"I thought in Argentina we were very, very good at scrum and lineout; in the Six Nations we were tremendous in those areas so it was something that in the autumn we felt we needed to improve a little bit.
"There were a few things in both our attack and defence we were a little bit rusty on, and combinations weren't quite the same. They are things we've worked on as well. It will always be imperfect; it's just how those margins of imperfection are.
"Hopefully they're narrow enough to allow us to get enough control to get our noses in front."
That's the plan, but Schmidt is expecting a much-improved Italian side than the one his team swatted aside in last year's meeting at the Aviva Stadium.
Jacques Brunel has named a strong line-up which has more caps to its name than Ireland's and the Ireland coach is, as is his nature, taking nothing for granted.
"I've seen the weather forecast, it looks to me that it's going to be fine and around 10-12 degrees come kick-off," he said.
"One thing I'm sure of they're more expansive than they used to be and with guys like Sarto, Campagnaro, Masi coming in from the back, Luke McLean's kicking game and running game, on the fringes they're a much more dangerous group than they used to be.
"On both sides of the game, I think a bit more of the game will be played by those four characters that they have and the four characters we have in the same positions."
That sounds promising but, with a cadre of experienced operators to come into the squad ahead of the visit of France, a winning start is all that matters to Schmidt. If his team can swerve this banana skin, it only increase the hopes and dreams of a nation and, thus, the paranoia and worry of the man who makes it happen.