Joe Schmidt will head into his fifth Six Nations championship as Ireland head coach admitting he has not looked past Saturday’s opening showdown in Paris.
The pre-championship chatter may all be about whether Ireland are NatWest 6 Nations favourites, as England head coach Eddie Jones has playfully suggested against the belief of the bookmakers, and various pundits are predicting a return to the winner’s enclosure for the men in green for the first time in three seasons.
Yet Schmidt is more concerned with the threat France pose in delivering a repeat of last year’s opening-day defeat at Murrayfield when Scotland destroyed Irish optimism at the first hurdle.
Ireland had gone into the 2017 Six Nations with expectations on a high having completed victories over New Zealand and Australia the previous November while also securing a historic first Test win against the Springboks on South African soil in the summer of 2016.
Yet the bubble was burst in Edinburgh on the opening day when the Scots exploited a sluggish Irish start to win 27-22.
So for all the noise about Ireland stopping England’s bid for three in a row titles in potential championship showdown at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, the head coach has underlined his intention to keep the Irish squad “next-game focused”.
“I’ve probably thought less about the tournament than I have in the last four years,” Schmidt said.
“I’ve thought more about France, I’ve thought more about us than I ever have because we’ve got the youngest squad we’ve had and it’s about investing in those players as much as we can in this very short window that we have to try to be competitive, hit the ground running and put our best performance together in that first 20 minutes in France, let alone 40 minutes, let alone 80.”
Dismissing the expectation Ireland are simply on a collision course for the title with England on March 17 by saying he cannot control or influence perceptions, Schmidt instead emphasised the dangers that lie in wait for his team at Stade de France this weekend from a team in disarray last year under former head coach Guy Noves but with potential to regain pride under new boss Jacques Brunel.
“All I can do is try and work as hard as I can to get our coaching staff and players on the same page and motivated and to build a bit of confidence.
“Players have come in confident, but there’s also that reality of the history we have in France along with that unpredictability which is exacerbated by the recent changes in French rugby.
“I think France last year (when they finished third) and this year is a little bit different. In the past, some of the French players would have had to have played (for their clubs) at the weekend.
“That’s not the case now, they can protect 30 players so that they can get that fresh approach into that first game. With the attritional nature of the Top 14, that will breathe a bit of life into the French players.” Schmidt’s 36-man squad for the first two Six Nations fixtures against the French and at home to Italy seven days later saw just one uncapped player included, exciting Leinster academy wing Jordan Larmour, while there are notable injury absences in the back row and midfield with Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell among the missing forwards, and centres Luke Marshall, Garry Ringrose, Jared Payne unavailable.
Of the 36, 15 players have less than 10 Test caps and Schmidt was keen to point out that this is the youngest Six Nations squad he has named, with an average age of 25.66, 16 of whom are 25 and under.
Yet while the personnel may change, Schmidt believes there is continuity running through his squad in terms of selection and style of play, from his first championship in 2014, when Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell were the figureheads, to his fifth, the one about to begin this weekend under the captaincy of Rory Best and featuring the likes of Larmour, Joey Carbery and Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Dan Leavy.
“I think in the first Six Nations we scored the most amount of tries. It was pretty fluid, and it was probably contrasted in the next Six Nations. You didn’t have the same midfield. It was a new midfield, so things change with personnel.
“This Six Nations we have the youngest squad we have had and there is a degree of excitement in that. It does not mean we change the way we play.
“It means some players will play slightly differently. We have got guys, you look at skill sets, at personnel, and you look at some of the players we had four years ago and you look at the new breed of forward that comes out of teams and their comfort level on the ball which allows them to play slightly differently.
“Some players will have played more square and straight and now players will see a bit more space.
“I think you can go back to a whole lot of stats and how many passes are made and in the end, ours have not changed a whole lot since that first one where we were successful.
“The second tournament was successful as well but the context of games, in terms of the conditions you play in, can affect the way you end up playing. I think it is going to be interesting. I look at other teams as well and see the way they are trying to develop. The more it changes the more it stays the same.
“Is your lineout and scrum functioning well because your platform has to be strong. Is your accuracy and what you are doing good?
“Is the quality of your breakdown work good? The rules have not changed very much.
“We are trying to get the best out of the individuals we have. Our individuals are different this year. I do believe there is a core but there are a lot of guys who do not have that many caps.
“As I said it is our youngest group, therefore, it will be interesting to see how they develop the way they play,” concluded Schmidt.
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