Wednesday 21 August 2019

Tom Cary: 'Schmidt builds on stable foundation'

‘This year, perhaps it will be the turn of centre Will Addison, a former England Under-20 player who is now ripping it up for Ulster, to graduate.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘This year, perhaps it will be the turn of centre Will Addison, a former England Under-20 player who is now ripping it up for Ulster, to graduate.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Tom Cary

There is always something of a pantomime feel to proceedings at the launch of a new Six Nations and this year's - which took place at the Hurlingham Club in London on Wednesday - was no exception. It featured the usual knockabout stuff between the coaches, mixed with platitudes about "fronting up" and "not looking too far ahead".

There is normally, however, something extra to be gleaned from the body language on display. And as the head coaches made their way around the assembled media huddles, and Eddie Jones fired off his "verbal grenades" about bat-phones and binoculars, Joe Schmidt's body language was particularly instructive.

Told what Jones had just said in another huddle, Ireland's head coach would react with the air of a man being told his incorrigible younger brother had done something mischievous; raising his eyebrows, giving a little chuckle and an "Eddie will be Eddie" shake of the head.

Impishness does not come as naturally to the Kiwi as it does to the Australian. Schmidt is an earnest sort. A former schoolteacher who confessed this week that his entire coaching career had been "accidental", he tends not to get involved in the verbal sparring. But one senses that, where once Jones might have got under his skin with some of his remarks, now his "grenades" make no impression whatsoever.

Indeed, it is tough to see how anything or anyone can destabilise Ireland. The foundations are so stable, the pool of talent so deep, the players so well drilled, it is going to take a mighty effort to upset them.

After a 2018 in which they accomplished every one of their challenges, winning a Six Nations Grand Slam, an away series in Australia and going through the entire autumn unbeaten, including that magnificent win over the All Blacks, confidence is at an all-time high.

Ireland's provincial game is on fire, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all through to the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and unbeaten against English opposition, while the provincial production line keeps on churning out gems. Last year Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan made their Six Nations debuts. They are yet to taste defeat in the competition.

This year, perhaps it will be the turn of centre Will Addison, a former England Under-20 player who is now ripping it up for Ulster, to graduate. Or Tadhg Beirne, the former Leinster academy player who spent a couple of seasons at Scarlets before moving back to Munster this year. He has been in magnificent form. It is England's great fortune that Beirne hurt his knee in Munster's win over Exeter a couple of weeks ago and has been ruled out of the first two rounds.

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Still, the bookies are not giving England much of a chance. Ireland are 3/1 on for the victory in Dublin on Saturday, and it is easy to see why.

Where once Schmidt's men played a pretty functional game without much flair, now Stockdale is dinking balls over All Blacks' heads and grinning from ear to ear while doing it.

Where once they lacked cover in key positions, now players such as Joey Carbery are developing into viable alternatives, the IRFU having moved him from Leinster to Munster. Dan Leavy injured? Ireland can call on a British and Irish Lion in the fit-again Seán O'Brien, Josh van der Flier, who was in the team who beat the All Blacks in the autumn, or Jordi Murphy, who beat the world champions in Chicago in 2016.

Perhaps their biggest challenge is the growing sense of expectancy, although captain Rory Best is adamant that it's just background noise. "It's something you can't really get away from because you spend time at home with family and friends and you have to do media stuff, so you hear a lot about it. But with this group of players it's about the expectations you put on yourself."

Schmidt, meanwhile, said he expected England to bring "brutality" to the highly anticipated encounter in Dublin next weekend, with Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back fit.

"He's a handful," he said of Tuilagi. "Especially when you've got good guys running off him, when you've got him hitting and Mako [Vunipola] coming around the corner after him, or the next headache, it might be [Maro] Itoje coming around the corner. You might focus on Itoje and they go across flat to a reverse angle running Tuilagi. I'm just thinking bruises, really. I do think that power game is something they may well bring to Dublin and it's something that's going to be really difficult for us to contain."

Perhaps. Or maybe Schmidt was just playing games, daring Jones to try something different. The truth is, it probably does not make much difference either way. The fact Ireland have to travel to Cardiff on the final day has tempted a few punters to put their money on Warren Gatland's Wales, who are also riding high after going nine matches unbeaten. But it is difficult to look past this Ireland team.

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