Thursday 22 February 2018

Beating England would be my biggest win as Ireland coach, says Joe Schmidt

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during training
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during training

Daniel Schofield

Joe Schmidt made no attempt to play down the significance of the potential Six Nations decider against England on Sunday, saying that it would represent the biggest victory of his tenure as Ireland head coach.

The usual protocol of “just another fixture” has been abandoned. There is simply too much riding on the showdown at the Aviva Stadium for Ireland, who are seeking a record-equalling 10th consecutive victory as well as an end to four successive defeats by England.

Also hanging in the balance is the probable fate of the championship, with both teams having won two from two. Ireland are attempting a first outright defence of their crown since 1949. In World Cup year, to knock off the hosts, who were the last team to defeat Ireland a year ago, would send an emphatic message.

“It would be the biggest win we’ve had so far, without a doubt,” Schmidt said. “The position we’re in, what we’ve got to play for, the year that’s in it, the players that have come in and out of the squad ... there’s a number of things that it would be great to give that confidence to the players, to know that they’re capable of doing it.

“I think it’s hard not to get excited. We’ve been working hard for a long time; 50 different players in 18 months and this gives us an opportunity to maybe culminate in a home victory that would be really special.”

Schmidt’s sentiments are shared by his players. Conor Murray, the scrum-half, calls their recent record against England “annoying” while Jack McGrath, the loosehead prop who starts ahead of Cian Healy, says ­Ireland will be adopting an underdog mentality, contrary to what the bookmakers are predicting.

“They’re probably the favourites for the competition,” McGrath said. “They’re coming over here to our patch. We haven’t beaten them in four years. In our own stadium, the crowd’s going to be baying for blood. We really have to go out there and show we want to retain our championship.”

There is only one change to the Ireland XV who beat France 18-11 in Dublin as Jordi Murphy replaces the injured Jamie Heaslip at No 8. Again Schmidt did little to disguise how much of a loss the two-time Lion would be. “We will miss Jamie Heaslip’s experience to be honest; he’s very much a big-game player with big-game temperament. That allows us to be a little bit more organised. So it’s a big challenge for Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien to help Jordi map his way around the pitch.”

The advantage for Schmidt is that O’Brien, the flanker, and Johnny Sexton, the fly-half, have had another fortnight to build on their match ­fitness after both returned from long absences against France. Sexton, who missed 12 weeks through concussion, barely missed a beat in a man-of-the-match performance in that game, and Schmidt believes he will be even sharper this week.

“He’ll be better in his own comfort level,” he said. “He’ll feel a little bit more in synch, he will feel like he has got a little bit more game rhythm. I know that he was very keen to get into the game last week and the first penalty we got early in the game he tapped and went and then the pass went into touch. He just frustrated himself a bit a few times during the game. I think he will himself allow himself to flow into the game a little more comfortably.”

Schmidt is reading little into last year’s result, a 13-10 defeat, particularly as only six English players retain their starting XV place tomorrow. “Really you are looking at a very changed group but a group that is high on confidence and that is performing at a very high level, therefore you try to construct a fairly different approach and hope that that fits the bill on the day.

“We have worked hard this week, we are going to roll up our sleeves on Sunday and try to manufacture enough opportunities so that we can get that fine margin to swing in our favour.”

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