Joe Schmidt hoping players' heads won't be turned after Ulster duo's apperance at rape trial
Ulster duo’s appearance at Belfast trial threatens ‘bubble’
If you are an avid reader of Joe Schmidt's pre-game comments, you'll be familiar with the imaginary bubble that surrounds the Ireland camp at Carton House.
The Co Kildare venue is the national team's sanctuary from the stormy waters elsewhere and it's where the former Leinster coach drills his team relentlessly away from the media glare.
Everything that goes on outside is simply noise to be ignored because Schmidt demands his squad's full focus during their time in the Kildare set-up.
On an away Test week, the squad assembles on Sunday evenings and train on Mondays and Tuesdays. They break on Tuesday evening and reconvene on Wednesday night. They train Thursday morning, travel in the afternoon and complete their final preparations at the stadium this morning.
What they do on their down day is their own business. The goal-kickers go for an additional practice, but otherwise it's about rest, recovery, satisfying the sponsors or seeing the friends and family.
Unless they wish to share their lives with their Instagram followers, the players usually escape the spotlight for 24 hours and that suits Schmidt who needs them fresh and focused for the huge game that awaits them in Paris.
One thing he doesn't expect is to see two of his players on the front page of national newspapers when they come back into camp, but that's the sight that greeted him when he flicked through his media dossier yesterday morning.
The decision of starting players Rory Best and Iain Henderson to attend the ongoing trial of Ulster and Ireland team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding brought the issue to Schmidt's door and threatened to burst his bubble.
Jackson and Olding are accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in June 2016, with Jackson also facing an additional charge of sexual assault.
A third man, former Ulster Academy player Blane McIlroy, is charged with indecent exposure, while ex-UCD and Belfast Harlequins player Rory Harrison is accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
All four deny the charges.
The attendance of Best and Henderson in court put the coach in a difficult position yesterday when he faced questions after naming his team.
The IRFU warned before the press conference that repeated questions about the trial would result in the event being ended prematurely, saying that they could not address the topic because of legal issues.
"Regarding the ongoing court case in Belfast, we are not in a position legally to make any comment," press officer David ó Síocháin said before Schmidt named the team. When asked by the Irish Independent, Schmidt would not clarify if Best had consulted with him about his decision to attend court.
Pressed by another journalist about his thoughts on Best's presence in court, he said: "We are not in a position to comment on any of that. It's a legal matter."
Legalities aside, it is impossible to shield the players from the reports about the case which are leading bulletins across the land. They shared a dressing-room with the accused pair. Jackson was the starting No 10 in the team that lost to Scotland in the Six Nations opener last year, while Olding played on the 2016 summer tour of South Africa.
And Best and Henderson's presence in court brings the trial into the team room.
Schmidt demands full focus from his players and he believes the bubble will remain intact despite facing questions on the issue yesterday.
"The bubble stays the same," he said. "The size and nature of events may change from week to week, but, you know, again, we don't directly influence those.
"We don't control those circumstances and they won't directly influence what happens on Saturday and the players are very good at just staying focused on what they need to do in the very short term.
"Anything else will be discussed or solved at a later date.
"There are so many things you don't control - there's variables that you tend to ignore as best you can and solely focus on those you can control or at least influence and that is one of those things that is outside the bubble, that is uncontrollable and you just stay focused."
Spending a day in court is an unusual way for two players to prepare for a Test match, but when asked by the Irish Independent if he was concerned about their performance being affected Schmidt said he has confidence in Best and Henderson's ability to perform.
"I'm confident in the team. I think the team are ready to perform and you go into every Test match hoping that they will," he said.
As for the match, Schmidt is happy with his team's preparations but wary of the French threat.
"I'm happy with the past two weeks," he said. "I don't think I've been as cold at training as I was in Spain on Friday of last week. It sheeted rain and was Baltic. I loved the way it was reported as a warm-weather camp... I'm really happy with what has happened so far.
"Am I confident? I'm hopeful that I'll get a fast start. I know the French will want to get out of the blocks. The worst thing you can ever do to a French side is write them off.
"I remember speaking to one particular All Black after the 2011 World Cup where the All Blacks had really hummed their way through the Cup. France had done things like lost to Tonga and scrambled past a 14-man Wales team.
"Really they were incredibly unlucky, probably unlucky not to get a result there just because that is the unknown that they present, probably similar to this weekend. They present an unknown challenge. We know the individuals they have and the quality they bring."