Friday 15 December 2017

Schmidt eyes 'top two' finish for maiden Six Nations tilt

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is aiming to guide Ireland to a top two finish in the Six Nations
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is aiming to guide Ireland to a top two finish in the Six Nations
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The grounds of the Hurlingham Club in Fulham were a picture of calm as elderly tennis players took advantage of the unseasonably mild conditions, while the golfers got in a few holes amid the scenic south London escape.

Tranquillity was only broken once one stepped inside the bustling conference centre, where the contrast between the peace and quiet of the goings-on outside and the feeding frenzy of the Six Nations launch could not have been more apparent.

In his time as Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt would have attended a number of gigs that ran on a similar format, but nothing on this scale.

This was an introduction to the inner workings of the beast that is the Six Nations, when rugby union annually puts its head above the parapet and enters the broader public consciousness.

As he was whisked from room to room to face similar questions from media old and new, the Ireland coach was left in no doubt that he was the centre of attention.

By the time Schmidt headed for a corner of the main lobby where the Irish daily newspaper journalists were huddled, waiting for a word away from the throng, he almost looked happy to see us. Almost.

At that stage, being asked the same questions must have started to grate and the flight home was close. After all, a full day in London was a day's preparation out the window, but there were still a few issues to be addressed before the New Zealander could get back to looking at Scottish game-tape and whittling down his squad after Saturday's Wolfhounds game against the England Saxons.

Confirmation that, as the Irish party landed in Dublin, Jonathan Sexton would be heading back to Paris is a not-unexpected spanner in the works that still makes for a weekend of worry as Ireland's first-choice fly-half takes on Toulouse at the Stade de France, while Keith Earls' knee injury, which will keep him out of the first two games at least, throws open another selection dilemma alongside the battle for Sean O'Brien's jersey.

HEARTBREAKING

November finished on a low with that heartbreaking All Black try, but there was still much to build on.

Being asked time and again about the "recurring nightmare" of the final moments of that game can't have helped Schmidt's mood, but the hope remains that his side were starting to click during those incredible 80 minutes, even if he admits there has had to be some relearning since regathering his troops after intense work with the provinces in recent weeks.

And, while Schmidt maintains that the game plan he is implementing is not overly complicated, he has high standards about how it is delivered – even though captain Paul O'Connell has admitted that the amount of new information affected his ability to get up to his preferred levels of aggression at times in November.

"We actually play a really simple game, it is more about the detail around effectiveness, rather than the complicated detail," said Schmidt.

"Even my wife would say I'm fussy. She obviously isn't, look at this!" he added, pointing to his face with a smile. "I think being pulled up on things and demanding they're done right... you can get really good habits.

"What Paul was kind of saying was he wants to automate the detail and be as accurate as he can, and then he can forget the detail because the accuracy will be a habit for him and hopefully he can build a up the right degree of intensity and aggression.

"I think we've had to go back a few steps. There were some guys who are missing (from November) and there are some guys who weren't there. We've obviously got that wider squad and that is partly because we're a little bit unsure about some guys.

"I think there are some guys fighting for that No 7 jersey. You've got guys like Chris Henry, Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy, and none of those guys have spent a lot of time with us.

"So with those guys we just want to go back to bring them forward, really, so we can go forward as a group. Now we have to be far enough forward to be really competitive against Scotland and that's the challenge."

Identifying the right man to wear that openside jersey is a priority, with Henry looking the favourite. O'Donnell looks set to get a shot for the Wolfhounds this weekend while Murphy has been impressing his former provincial coach.

The loss of O'Brien is massive and will have an impact, but Schmidt is not holding back when identifying what will represent success over the next eight weeks.

"For us a really successful Six Nations would be top two," he said. "We're talking about some really competitive teams and if we can make top two... I think it would be solid if we made the top half, and if we're in the bottom three I'll be really disappointed."

That said, he is wary of the various pitfalls that await and appears particularly concerned with the short turnaround between the Scotland and Wales games.

"We have a six-day turnaround to Wales, even if we get past Scotland, Wales are a massive team physically," he said.

"While it might be in our home town and the Aviva has been a super stadium through the autumn series – I just thought it got better and better insofar as the atmosphere there – that six-day turnaround with them playing Italy first up, they could come with a) momentum, b) a freshness and c) a real revenge factor after what happened in the Millennium Stadium and probably to justify what happened through the summer."

Despite finishing last season bottom, France are the New Zealander's pre-tournament tips, even if he quietly has eyes on the prize himself.

Once he was done with the last of his media duties, Schmidt was headed straight back to Dublin to plot a route through the treacherous new waters that await.

Getting through the sharks at the launch may have seemed like a challenge at the time, but it was the first stretch of a voyage that is like no other he has travelled and it is only going to get more difficult.

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