'Leinster the dominant force'
O'Connell has no issue with being one of just two Reds in Ireland 23, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
THE dissenting voices grow louder, but Joe Schmidt looks like a man who sleeps pretty easily at night regardless.
And why wouldn't he, given the fact that his team sit on top of the Six Nations table ahead of their final two games?
Narrow defeats to England and New Zealand may have robbed him of his marquee moment, but things have been on the up since the former Leinster coach moved into the national job. The Australia defeat was a low point, but otherwise it has been a progressive eight months.
Still, there are those who would complain that his reliance on Leinster players is bordering on favouritism.
Yesterday, he increased the proportion of Blues in his match-day squad to face Italy to 15 plus Jonathan Sexton, while Munster's representation plunged to new lows with Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray the only two remaining after Peter O'Mahony's injury.
For those who watch provincial numbers in the national squad like stocks and shares, it was worthy of complaint.
Schmidt could easily have assuaged those counting by including Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo without weakening his panel, but if we have learned anything about the New Zealander since he landed on these shores it's that he is his own man who picks what he sees as his best team for the job.
The intricacies of the game plan also make it harder than ever to break into the Irish squad from the outside, so those who have been in camp throughout and, in particular, during off-weeks have an advantage. Ryan and Zebo are playing catch-up.
So, it is Iain Henderson who moves from the bench into the starting team, while Rhys Ruddock joins Jordi Murphy on the bench.
Fergus McFadden, who was one of Ireland's best players in November and, crucially, covers a range of positions, holds on to the No 23 jersey.
By going with a specialist blindside (Ruddock) on the bench rather than a second-row who can also cover No 6, Schmidt admits he has taken a risk, though with Henderson able to switch to the engine-room if required, the coach is confident it won't be an issue.
"It's just that your second-row replacement is starting at No 6; there is a degree of risk that two of the three might get hurt, but we finished the last 20 minutes of the Wales game with Peter O'Mahony in the second-row," said Schmidt.
Munster players Ian Keatley and Dave Kilcoyne have admitted the lack of provincial representation has been used as motivation during the club season, but O'Connell was non-plussed when asked about the issue yesterday.
"I didn't give it much thought that way but, look, Leinster have been the dominant force in Irish rugby for quite some time now," he said.
"You even look at Munster-Leinster results for the past few years and they have been the dominant force.
"They've won trophies year on year. They dominated Europe and have done very well in the Pro12 as well so I don't think we can argue with it."
Schmidt, meanwhile, was simply focused on the task at hand. He dismissed any idea of a rift between himself and the Racing Metro hierarchy despite the confusing missives over the fitness of Sexton last week, while he stated his full confidence in Henderson's ability to cover for Devin Toner and O'Connell in the second-row.
He also confirmed that Tommy Bowe could come into contention for next week's clash against France having shown no ill-effects of training with the squad yesterday.
Ireland have a decent points difference but, given the tournament is likely to come down to the finest of margins and they are up first at the weekend, there is a need to extend their lead before their rivals get going.
The coach won't send his team out to chase points, but says they will be flexible should an opportunity arise.
"The balance at the moment would be tipped massively toward the result," Schmidt said. "If you go out trying to win everything in the first part of the game, you frustrate yourself and you can be overly anxious.
"You can try overly hard and in the end it's very difficult to make things come off. We've got to be patient, we've got to be really well prepared because Italy are going to make it really tough and if we're not up to it they've proven that they can easily get results.
"We'd love to go to Paris with a good differential but we need to get to Paris with three wins and that's still our primary goal."
While Italy without Sergio Parisse won't present the same challenge to the Irish attack as England did, the coach wants more accuracy. He has lamented how close they were to breaking England down but for an inch here or there and has spent the last fortnight drilling for improvement.
"When you get into those pressure points, those pressure areas of the game; you want to come away with something," he said.
Do that, and they should go to Paris in pole position and with a Championship theirs to lose.
Which wouldn't be bad considering the outcry that greets his every team announcement.