Ireland have won two Six Nations championships and beaten all three of the southern hemisphere giants on Joe Schmidt’s watch but the Kiwi clearly feels that the next month will serve as the best barometer yet as to where his team stands, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Touted as a hot tip for the title prior to the tournament, the defeat to Scotland has left Ireland playing catch-up. It is tantamount to knockout rugby from here on in with next weekend’s visit of France to Dublin serving as the quarter-final.
“The more experiences you get in that domain the greater your ability to cope in those situations,” said Schmidt. “We know we are under the hammer. How the players respond when they are under the hammer, we will find out a little bit I guess. We’re not happy to be where we are but we’re excited about the challenge we face.”
The French arrive on Irish soil buoyed by their performance against England and the result against the Scots and Schmidt has repeatedly played up their capabilities under Guy Noves whom he knows well from his time with Clermont Auvergne.
Noves has sought to reintroduce some of the side’s traditional flair alongside the ever-present beef and the offloads attempted in their opening games speaks volumes for that approach. Questions remain over their ability to stay the pace with a side that moves the play about but France will look at Ireland’s occasionally narrow defence and feel that wings such as Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa can profit.
“They were super against England and solid against Scotland when they did enough to win,” said Schmidt, who dismissed the suggestion that France were still something of an unknown quantity, especially on the road.
“We have no doubt about what French team will turn up. It will be big and it will be powerful and it will be incredibly motivated because both teams are effectively out of the contest if they lose next Saturday.”
Schmidt has decisions to make before then.
Jonathan Sexton will start if able but the back three and back row are areas of fierce competition. Peter O’Mahony is surely pushing hard given his added use as a lineout jumper, for instance, but who would he replace? Josh van der Flier is another nudging hard for selection while the doubt over Rob Kearney’s fitness only adds flavour to the debate as to whether Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe or even Craig Gilroy or Andrew Conway can force the coaching staff’s hand. Other questions are tactical.
Ireland showed a willingness to play a more expansive and less structured game in Rome last weekend. Sixteen offloads, an eye-popping number for a Schmidt team, were made but there is no doubt but that this is horses for courses stuff.
“It’s when guys become more comfortable as a group,” he explained. “One of the things about international rugby that probably frustrates me the most is you don’t get those longer windows with players. If they are not comfortable doing things then it is very hard to make them comfortable when you get together on a Sunday evening. You have a light training on a Monday, train Tuesday, Thursday and you play on Saturday. You’re not suddenly going to have a massive influence on how someone plays. You are also trying to influence a bit of that but also influence how comfortable they are with other players because if you are going to make a pass someone had to be in a good position to receive it.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.