Joe Schmidt would be content with top-half finish after difficult Championship
Joe Schmidt insists he has kept Ireland afloat despite "a pretty challenging time" to fight for a mid-table RBS 6 Nations finish.
Rory Best has shaken off calf trouble in time to captain Ireland for Saturday's closing Six Nations clash against Scotland in Dublin. Munster's Tommy O'Donnell starts at openside flanker in the sole change from the 58-15 thumping of Italy last week - Ireland's only win in the tournament so far.
Ireland can salvage a third-place finish from a disappointing, injury-hit title defence with victory over Scotland, with head coach Schmidt wary of three Tests against South Africa and two against New Zealand still ahead this year.
"If we can get that top-half finish I'd be very happy that we've worked our way through a pretty challenging time," he said. "Hopefully that could give us a little bit of a platform into what is an incredibly tough second half of the year.
"We're going to play the top three teams in the world in six Test matches - three of those away in Africa, where we've never, ever won a Test match before. But being a week-to-week team those are all things we'll reflect on post-Saturday, and then try to build from in preparation for South Africa."
Ireland's catalogue of injuries and Paul O'Connell's retirement had Schmidt predicting a mid-table finish even before the tournament kicked off. A 16-16 draw with Wales and defeats in France and England has piled the pressure even on that though, with former Leinster boss Schmidt accepting Ireland have had to fight a host of fires in this campaign.
Ireland face a three-Test tour to South Africa in June before facing New Zealand twice and Australia in the autumn in an unforgiving close to 2016. "There's a real enthusiasm to finish well, especially after the disappointment of France," Schmidt said.
"We really feel that was a game that got away from us, and we're disappointed with a number of aspects that we couldn't control in that game, and we're disappointed with some of the aspects that we should have controlled better and therefore control the end-result.
"We never felt like we were drowning but we were struggling to stay on the surface, and now that we've got our head above the surface we want to try to capitalise on that and produce something that we finish off this weekend to give us a positive outcome on the table, and also a positive platform to look ahead to."
Hard-nosed Kiwi Vern Cotter has been busy transforming Scotland from also-rans to credible threat since taking the helm in May 2014. Close friends Cotter and Schmidt forged a formidable coaching duo at Clermont before moving into direct competition in the Test arena.
Schmidt admitted he still finds the experience of clashing with such a good friend "bizarre", but will not be tempted to let the inside track on Cotter's coaching methods alter his own approach with Ireland.
"You try not to get into the stage where it's double jeopardy, where you go along the lines of 'he thinks I think this might happen'," Schmidt said. "That's when you start confusing yourself and that doesn't take a lot for me to confuse myself. So I try not to do that. I just try to fit what might work best for us to the guys that we have.
"Nathan Hines knows me really well as well, obviously, having spent the time in Leinster that he did. So it's probably more to their advantage than to mine.
"It's a little bit bizarre to go up against someone you know so well; his first-born was born at the same time as my youngest son. We were in the hospital together seeing our respective wives at the time.
"Our wives are catching up over the next few days, and I'll catch up with Vern before the game and have a bit of a chat about everything but rugby. There's a few other guys in their environment I know pretty well too. Nathan Hines I know very, very well.
"Some of the players and coaches have shared friendships that continue for a long period of time. Those friendships continue despite results, despite trying to plot the downfall of each other."