Tuesday 18 June 2019

Joe Schmidt hoping difficult Six Nations will help 'vaccinate' the panel for the World Cup


Taking one for the team: Johnny Sexton is tackled by Allan Dell of Scotland as he offloads a pass to Ireland team-mate Jacob Stockdale (right), who goes on to score his side’s second try. Photo: Sportsfile
Taking one for the team: Johnny Sexton is tackled by Allan Dell of Scotland as he offloads a pass to Ireland team-mate Jacob Stockdale (right), who goes on to score his side’s second try. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

This year is all about one thing - and it's not the Six Nations. That was the message from Joe Schmidt, who had previously hinted that he was viewing this tournament through the prism of the World Cup and, having got back to winning ways in Edinburgh, he explicitly stated his hierarchy of priorities in 2019.

So, everything that happens in the next six weeks is about building towards Japan.

If they somehow manage to win the Six Nations again, then well and good. But, having secured the title in three of five attempts, the New Zealander has a bigger picture in mind.

Not that results don't matter. A defeat to Scotland would have rattled the team's confidence after a bruising non-performance against England.

Flawed as it was, Saturday's win was an important building block towards the main event. That it came against the team Ireland open their campaign against in Yokohama on September 22 was a bonus.

Certainly, both teams will hope to produce better on the biggest stage than they did at a blustery Murrayfield at the weekend.

Conor Murray celebrates scoring Ireland’s first try in Murrayfield. Photo: Getty
Conor Murray celebrates scoring Ireland’s first try in Murrayfield. Photo: Getty

Again, Ireland just proved to be the stronger team in the contact zone and that was the difference between two teams playing within themselves and cancelling each other out.

"I was speaking to Andy Farrell before the game and we both said Yokohama feels like another world," Gregor Townsend said.

"We've got a pre-season, a World Cup camp to get through. It's the first game of the World Cup so how well you do in your camp, and how well you get your plays in place in those friendlies will have more relevance than this game."

Before the tournament, Schmidt worried aloud about the potential for a loss of momentum during this tournament and that was accentuated by the nature of the loss to England.

So, this was a win that points his team back in the right direction while it was also a significant investment in the future-proofing of his squad.

He has used 27 players in the two championship games. While he might have planned to experiment with his squad during the tournament, his hand has been forced by injury.

He changed a fifth of his team from the England game and then lost Johnny Sexton to injury, but despite the disruption and loss of cohesion the players held it together and did enough.

All the while, Joey Carbery got almost an hour of Six Nations rugby at out-half, while Quinn Roux came from outside the squad and ran the lineout.

Chris Farrell got another 80 minutes of top-class action under his belt and Jack Conan enjoyed a fine outing in the No 8 shirt.

And Conor Murray played his way into form. Still not at his best, the scrum-half showed signs of life after a poor performance at the Aviva Stadium.

It wasn't an inspiring performance and the lack of a bonus point means the title is even more of a long shot than it was before the weekend, yet it was clear that this trophy is not the main motivation for Ireland's head coach.


"Look, if we'd never won one of these before we would be even more gutted," Schmidt said. "But we've done well in the Six Nations in the last five years so if it doesn't come to pass this year there is a big thing at the end of the year for us.

"And any time we get the opportunity to blend guys in and be forced to make late changes and be forced to kind of reconstruct what we do on the pitch, I think it helps vaccinate us against what happened last time.

"While no vaccination is 100 per cent you are hoping that inch by inch you can get a little bit more comfortable and confident that people can step in and do a job."

The next challenge is to manage a four-week period with one game.

Tadhg Beirne, Kieran Marmion and Dan Leavy could come into the equation as they approach their predicted return dates, while a host of squad members will be clamouring for involvement against Italy.

For Schmidt, the challenge is balancing the squad-building with team cohesion.

Rome was always the obvious place to make changes, but the rest weeks either side of the fixture complicate matters.

Murray may have limped off, but he looks like he needs time on the pitch. However, John Cooney could benefit from more than three minutes at the end of a game.

Sexton and Rob Kearney are short on games, but there is value in revisiting the Robbie Henshaw experiment and pitching Carbery in from the start would certainly benefit his development.

Others, like Will Addison and Jordan Larmour, could do with a run. Some will see PRO14 action this weekend, but the calibre of opposition won't help their cause.

Ireland will take a few days off and regroup before returning to camp later this week.

Schmidt was whisked away before we could get a sense of where he stands on the next two weeks and he won't be before the media again until his team is named.

Whatever strategy he had coming into the tournament was disrupted by injury and the nature of the performance against England, but he'll reconstitute his plan and look to finish strong and generate some momentum to take into the autumn.

"It has tended to in past championships," Schmidt said when asked if the fluency can come before the tournament finishes.


"We have tended to be a bit slow starting. I thought the fluency... we had two tries in the first quarter, for me that's relatively good reward and the set-play that we did score off, that needs a bit of fluency.

"But, when you lose your hub, it is a big call to suddenly say you are not going to miss a beat and so we did miss a few beats and we did put a few passes down.

"But, even then, twice, Rob Kearney looked like he was almost away to score. He looked for Chris Farrell on the inside and if that pass goes to hand, Chris Farrell I think scores. We weren't far away from breaking down what's a really good defence.

"So I'm not distraught that we've got no options, I'm just frustrated.

"I'd like us to be creating more opportunities so we can capitalise on more of them."

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