Sunday 11 December 2016

This week has been as tough as Argentina, says head coach Joe Schmidt

Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30

Simon Zebo, with his heavily strapped right knee, walks out to training at Carton House with Joe Schmidt . Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, with his heavily strapped right knee, walks out to training at Carton House with Joe Schmidt . Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland team to play France

Joe Schmidt is a meticulous man, so you can imagine his discomfort at not being able to confirm his team until seconds before naming it publicly yesterday.

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It's been that kind of week for the Ireland coach, who has prepared for tomorrow's match against France without knowing exactly who would be available and delayed naming his team until after it was confirmed that Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were unavailable after training at Carton House yesterday morning.

Already on a tight schedule because they were flying out to Paris after conducting their press duties, the delays lent an added drama to an event that normally passes without incident at this stage, with team-sheets hastily distributed to the assembled media just seconds before the coach walked into the room.

Off guard

Even the official IRFU Twitter feed was caught off guard, naming Rhys Ruddock as No 20 when Tommy O'Donnell was, in fact, the covering back-row.

In the event, Rob and Dave Kearney came into the back three at the expense of Zebo (knee) and Earls (head) to reform their back-three combination with Andrew Trimble for the first time since Ireland clinched the Six Nations title at the same venue two years ago.

Sean O'Brien replaced O'Donnell in the starting XV as Schmidt left his tight five untouched, with Richardt Strauss and Eoin Reddan coming in for Sean Cronin and Kieran Marmion on the bench, and Fergus McFadden was named at No 23 having earlier been named in the same jersey for Leinster.

"I don't even know that Leo (Cullen) knows yet," Schmidt said. "But he's probably seen this team and I've got a phone call waiting for me."

It was that kind of day and the kind of week that was giving the head coach an uneasily familiar feeling after training was limited to 95 minutes over the course of the week since Sunday's draw with Wales.

"I don't want to encourage negativity but it's probably as difficult, in some ways, as Argentina, because we had Johnny (Sexton) come out of the team very late in the piece, we had a lot of changes and people stepping in," he said.

"We just need to be as organised as we can be to make sure that that is as waterproof as we can make it."

Still, for all the chaos of the build-up, Schmidt was able to add experience to his team after a good opening day performance while retaining his most important players.

Sexton was declared fit after suffering a compressed neck as a result of a bang on the back of the head against Wales and there was enough confidence in the Leinster man's health to allow Paddy Jackson to take his place on the Ulster bench tonight as Luke Marshall and Ruddock travel as cover.

A connoisseur of the French game, Schmidt was only too happy to extol the virtues of every member of the much-changed team named by Guy Noves, but he believes that his team's work ethic can get them through.

"You are always confident that you are going to get the work ethic from an Irish team," he said.

"I don't think I have ever been involved either with Leinster or with the Irish side where there hasn't been a real intensity to the application of the job at hand.

"One of the great things about sport is nobody is utterly confident because with the vagaries of sport you just don't know what that result is going to be, but one thing we can be confident of is performance-wise that the players will give their utmost, and sometimes you are just hoping that that is enough to get the result."

Ireland showed encouraging signs in attack last weekend after shipping plenty of criticism about their style of play and Schmidt afforded himself a wry smile when asked about how the time constraints work against making widespread changes to a team's approach.

"Developing a style with a 32 and a 63-minute training (session). . . in the end you are just trying to get people organised," he said.

"At kick-off we will stand here because they kick there or there, at lineout they attack here or here, they use these lineout options, let's cover those. At scrum time this is what they do at scrum.

"By the time you split that time, 20 minutes of that was done in units of that 32, so we had 12 minutes together as a team. Twenty-five minutes of today was done in the units making sure that the scrum and the lineout were well prepared.

"You are very limited so to talk about creating a style or developing a style, it can be a little bit of a moot point particularly in a week like this where you have got new personnel coming in."

In his second game, Noves threw a couple of curve-balls Schmidt's way, replacing his outstanding props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani with Jefferson Poirot and the giant Kiwi Uini Atonio, with last week's starters ready to be introduced from the bench.

Reconstruction

The more mobile Paul Jedrasiak is replaced by Alexandre Flanquart in the second-row, while injury to Louis Picamoles has led to a reconstruction of the back-row as Damien Chouly shifts to No 8 and the athletic Yacouba Camara replaces him at openside.

Behind the scrum, Maxime Mermoz comes in for the absent Gael Fickou in the centre, while Teddy Thomas is a left-field selection ahead of Hugo Bonneval on the wing.

With wind and rain forecast for tomorrow's game, there will be a temptation to test the back-three combination of Thomas, Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa and Maxime Medard in the back-field with the clever kicking of Sexton and Conor Murray and the hard chasing of the Kearneys and Trimble.

"When they've got that back three, if you kick poorly to them or if you kick to them and give them time and space to come back at you, they're such a handful," Schmidt warned.

"You always want to play with that territory but it's a little bit different in that I think France are a team who can score from five metres out from their own line. They've got guys with enough speed, certainly. You've just got to be on high alert the whole time."

After killing Les Bleus with compliments, Schmidt's next job is to run them over on the rugby pitch, as he's done three times before. After a compressed week and with some bruised bodies on board, he's hoping hard work can conquer all on St Valentine's weekend.

Irish Independent

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