Joe Schmidt expects remaining Six Nations battles to go down to the wire

The medical update from the Scotland squad following their battle with France on Sunday will have given Ireland’s management plenty of pause for thought as they look ahead to their next Six Nations encounter in 11 days.

Last Saturday’s one-sided encounter against Italy in Rome, as Joe Schmidt’s side ran in nine tries for Ireland’s record Six Nations victory, may have been the perfect tonic following the self-inflicted defeat to the Scots on the opening weekend but the men in green will not by fooled into thinking the February 25 visit of the French to Dublin will be a similar Saturday afternoon stroll.

Scotland left Paris on Sunday night with a 22-16 defeat and their medical staff dealing with no less than four ongoing Head Injury Assessments and three soft-tissue injuries, not including the inevitable bumps and bruises from an extraordinarily tough afternoon at Stade de France. Two rounds and six games into the 2017 Championship and events at the Stadio Olimpico at the weekend are already looking like an anomaly. A 63-10 rout for Ireland has given them the only try bonus point to be seen so far on the league table, while Wales, who beat the Italians 33-7 in round one, are the only other side on the ladder with a positive points difference in double figures.

While that will excite Italy’s remaining opponents, England, whom the Azzurri play next at Twickenham, France and Scotland, the results from the other games point to an altogether different scenario for the other contests.

The four losing bonus points, one apiece for France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales also speak volumes for the narrow margins of this season’s clashes, as does table toppers England’s mere eight-point differential from their two wins over the French and Welsh. At the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday evening after his side’s massive win and as Wales and England were going toe to toe in Cardiff, head coach Schmidt assessed the attritional character of the tournament.

“I really think there’s going to be some battles that come down to the wire and there’s going to be a number of coaches’ fingernails missing at the end of this Six Nations because it’s just going to be really tight and combative. One team could get away but if they do I think it will be by small margins.”

All of which serves to underline that Ireland are going to have knuckle down for a long, hard slog through their final three matches, starting with Guy Noves’s France at the Aviva Stadium. Schmidt was impressed by the way the French fronted up in their opening game against England at Twickenham, a nip and tuck affair edged 19-16 by the hosts. He will also have pored over Sunday’s similarly narrow win over Scotland and seen that while Noves’s side still has vulnerabilities, they are much improved in their second season under the Toulouse legend.

“I think it’s the new blood. I thought (Kevin) Gourdon was unbelievably good at seven for them. Louis Picamoles had been pretty quiet in the Premiership but he grew another leg or two, and a few other guys who we’ve always thought a fair bit of, like Remi Lamerat; Scott Spedding was in amongst things, (Virimi) Vakatawa and (Noa) Nakataici were pretty exceptional, so when you look at all that, and (Sebastien) Vahaamahina was very big for them as well, there’s a fair few guys you look at and think they’re going to be a heap of a challenge.”

Ireland begin a three-day mini-camp in Monaghan tomorrow to review last Saturday’s win and begin preparations for the showdown with France. It will be a smaller group of players, much reduced from the 41 named for the first two games, with fringe members spending the week in their provinces ahead of the latest round of Guinness Pro12 action next weekend. Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Trimble, all of whom missed the games against Scotland and Italy, have been declared ready to face the French if selected and the trio will be staking their claim this week with Schmidt suggesting he wanted to see them in his group dynamic at camp rather than getting game time with their provinces. He also looked forward to the potential selection headaches their returns might pose as Ireland aim to continue their bid to reel England in over the coming weeks.

Ireland’s selection options

Front row

With captain Rory Best expected to have recovered from the stomach bug which kept him out of the Italy game, Munster’s Niall Scannell looks set to revert to a covering role at hooker following an impressive debut in Rome.

While Tadhg Furlong will retain his place at tighthead, fellow prop Cian Healy made his first Six Nations start since the 2015 title-clinching win over the Scots and staked a valid claim to continuing in the starting loosehead role or at least turning the position into a regular rotation between him and Jack McGrath.

Second row

Donnacha Ryan returned to line-up having missed the Scotland game and had a big point to prove.

His mission succeeded emphatically and he looks to be winning the battle to partner Devin Toner in the lineout with Iain Henderson vying with Ultan Dillane for the replacement’s role.

Back row

The return to fitness of Peter O’Mahony gives Ireland a further embarrassment of riches in the back row but the Munster captain will struggle to dislodge man of the match CJ Stander from the number six jersey.

[timgcap=]ItalyvIrelandCJStanderTryFeb2017_large.jpgtimgcap]

With Sean O’Brien also impressive at openside and Jamie Heaslip rebounding from a below-par outing against Scotland, O’Mahony may have to settle for a bench place at Josh van der Flier’s expense.

Half-backs

Sexton’s recovery from a calf problem would have signalled an automatic return to the number 10 jersey in previous seasons and he will remain favourite to do just that against the French but in his latest absence through injury, Paddy Jackson has proven he has the game to get Ireland motoring while his goal-kicking in Rome was a perfect nine from nine, all conversions to equal Jonny Wilkinson’s Six Nations record. Jackson, whose defensive contribution was also noteworthy, has three days in Monaghan to prove he has what it takes to hang on to his place.

Midfield

With Jared Payne still on the road to full health following his November kidney injury, Garry Ringrose, a try-scorer against the Italians, looks set to continue at outside centre in partnership with Leinster team-mate Robbie Henshaw, providing the latter successfully overcomes a bruised quad muscle.

Henshaw’s early withdrawal in Rome saw Keith Earls step in from the wing to outside centre with Ringrose moving inside and that partnership also functioned well while the uncapped Rory Scannell and Luke Marshall are other options.

Back three

The incumbent trio of Earls, who has now scored five tries in his last four games for Ireland, Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney look a settled unit for Schmidt, although Andrew Trimble’s availability following a groin injury, poses a dilemma for the head coach given replacement Craig Gilroy scored a hat-trick off the bench on Saturday.

That said, when Schmidt was asked about Gilroy’s contribution he pointed to a couple of defensive lapses and said the Ulster wing’s performance was a “mixed bag”, which bodes well for Trimble.


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