Wednesday 28 September 2016

'Top half finish would be a good Six Nations' - Ireland boss Schmidt

Schmidt defends his game-plan after World Cup

Published 28/01/2016 | 02:30

Sam Warburton, Greg Laidlaw, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Guilhem Guirado and Sergio Parisse at yesterday’s Six Nations launch (Photo: Adrian DennisAFP/Getty Images)
Sam Warburton, Greg Laidlaw, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Guilhem Guirado and Sergio Parisse at yesterday’s Six Nations launch (Photo: Adrian DennisAFP/Getty Images)

Joe Schmidt has issued a Six Nations reality check for fans hoping for a third successive title next month.

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Although IRFU performance director David Nucifora has already outlined that a successful Championship defence is the aim for the head coach and his squad, Schmidt said that a top-three finish would represent a successful eight weeks' work.

The bookies rate Ireland as joint- second favourites to win the title along with Wales, whose coach Warren Gatland has labelled the champions as the most likely team to claim the trophy.

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Yet Ireland are dealing with the loss of retired captain Paul O'Connell and injuries to Peter O'Mahony, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson, while the provinces' poor European form does not bode well for the weeks ahead.

They open with a tough fixture against Wales at home, before facing France in Paris six days later and England at Twickenham in round three.

Given that schedule, Schmidt was keen to play down Ireland's chances.

"To be as candid as I can be, I think a top-half finish would be a good Six Nations for us," he said at yesterday's tournament launch in London.

"We start with Wales and France in a six-day turnaround and then go to England.

"If we could be in the top half that means we'd have to be in front of three pretty good teams.

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"Being realistic, our dream would be to do what no team has done before (and win three in a row) and we're not going to give up the dream, but we're also reasonably pragmatic and practical in what we try to deliver and I think I would be unfair on the players if I said the only way to be successful is to win the Championship.

"To be honest it's never something that we've spoken about, we've been very much week to week in our focus.

"We feel a lot of pressure around that first game because we then have got two big away games, one of those is just six days later.

"It's a very complicated start for us. We want to get off to a good start but then so does everybody else. You know that as soon as you don't get a good start you are hugely behind the eight ball because it is very contained within those five games and you can can't afford to lose more than one, so if you don't start well you put yourself in a very tough situation."

That tough start and the competition within the tournament means Schmidt's scope to experiment will be limited during the high pressure window.

In the wake of the disappointing World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina, there were wide-ranging calls for a change of approach but the head coach does not think his game-plan needs major surgery.

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Although there are five uncapped players in the squad, the likelihood is that the New Zealander will stick to his tried and trusted in the weeks to come.

"It's funny, the game-plan in the World Cup served us really well. We still did get two tries against Argentina and I could show you a bit of footage that shows one good decision gives us another one at least. That makes you competitive against a really good side," he said.

"Are we that far away? We've beaten all the southern hemisphere sides in the last two years apart from the All Blacks. I don't think we're that far away - and we change our game-plan a little bit week to week, so we don't do the same things.

"One of the things that Andy Farrell said when I was chatting to him was that he found us difficult to prepare for because, 'they'll do this or they'll do that and then there was a little bit too much to cover'. Then he'd finish up by saying 'whatever you have seen, they'll do something different again so we've got to be prepared for that'.

"If we are challenging teams to analyse us like that, that's probably a strength because the more time they spend analysing us, the less time they're going to be spending on their own game and looking at how to disassemble us.

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"Even coming out of the World Cup, per game we kicked exactly the same number of times as the All Blacks did. You have a look at the All Blacks' last three games, how did they play against France? France only made two less offloads than the All Blacks did.

"How'd they play against South Africa? They suffocated them, they put the ball in behind them, they kicked a huge number of times.

"Then against the Wallabies, they changed it up again. They didn't play the same way - they don't play the same way and they've got fantastic players to play any way they want to on any given day depending on how they think they want to manipulate the opponent.

"That's part of the strategy of it and sometimes if somebody has more physical power than you, then you've got to be light on your feet.

"Other times, if you think you can physically overpower a team, then you might play to that strength. I think it is about getting a balance in how you play."

Schmidt also pointed to the lack of time available to make major changes.

"There's a reality in that we've got five training sessions before we play Wales," he said. "There's a reality that you can't reinvent the wheel; you can continually fine-tune it, but to reconstruct is very, very difficult.

"We have to change some of the things, we don't have probably the best lineout forward in the world (O'Connell) any more, so we've got to adapt and adjust there. We don't have quite the same power in our tight five necessarily.

"Then you get excited about who you have got. Jack McGrath has been great for us and started the last four games last year. Anyone who looked at Nathan White when he came on against France and we drilled them in that scrum. . . Nathan White did a great job. The other guys in the second-row, that's very much up in the air.

"Unfortunately we lost Iain Henderson and then Dan Tuohy as well, because they're the only two other guys outside of Dev (Toner) and Paul O'Connell who have really been in our Six Nations squads and played with any regularity. Everything is always changing, it's probably the only constant."

Schmidt on...

European exits

"It is an unusual situation, because it has not occurred for a number of years, and it may impact on confidence. But the players got together, trained for the first time yesterday, and there was a really good enthusiasm from the players. I’m positive that we’ll have at least one, two or hopefully three qualifiers in the European Cup next year in that top eight."

Impact of poor results on retaining players

"It’s easier to keep players in a place where they feel they have a chance of winning things because there’s a feel-good factor when you’re a competitive person and a non-tangible factor that’s not necessarily money."

Johnny Sexton being targeted

"There was a little bit of unsavoury dialogue in the build-up to the last pool game of the World Cup, to him being targeted, and if you know how stubborn Johnny is, that’s fuel to the fire. He’s incredibly brave as a No 10, he stands his ground as a defender."

Wales

"Talking to Sam Warburton this morning, this is his fifth time here, so his experience as the captain of that side, the side itself with over 1,100 caps, and they’re a very big side. They’re a very tough side to knock back, they average 106 kilos a man – they were the biggest team in the world at the World Cup so they have that physical domination that they can impose on teams, they have that skill factor and I don’t think anyone watching couldn’t have been but impressed by Dan Biggar, I thought he was incredibly impressive."

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