Joe Schmidt will dare to dream about Ireland winning an historic third RBS 6 Nations title in a row, but the realist in the head coach makes him consider a top-three finish a successful championship.
The retirement of talismanic captain Paul O’Connell and injuries to frontline front-rowers Cian Healy and Mike Ross for at least the Six Nations opening game at home to Wales means Schmidt may field a makeshift front five to face what he declared world rugby’s biggest Test team at the Aviva Stadium on February 7.
Throw in a trip to Paris to face France six days later and then England at Twickenham in round three and the Ireland boss can see a scenario where his side could have their backs against the wall at the halfway stage of the tournament.
So when Schmidt was asked at the media launch for the 2016 RBS 6 Nations in south-west London yesterday what would constitute a successful championship his response was an uneasy mixture of ambition and pragmatism.
“Yeah, look, to be as candid as I can be, I think a top-half finish would be a good Six Nations for us. We start with Wales and France in a six-day turnaround and then go to England. That could put us in a very tough position before we’ve even got our feet fully rounded in going forward.
“If we could be in the top half that means we’d have to be in front of three pretty good teams.
“Our dream would be to do what no team has done before and we’re not going to give up the dream, but we’re also reasonably pragmatic and practical in what we try to deliver and I think I would be unfair on the players if I said the only way to be successful is to win the Championship.
“To be honest it’s never something we’ve spoken about, we’ve been very much week to week in our focus.”
Schmidt stressed he had just five training sessions with his players between today and the meeting with Warren Gatland’s Wales in Dublin a week on Sunday and therefore feels there is little opportunity to “reinvent the wheel” in terms of gameplan. But with a team averaging 106 kilograms in weight he will look at devising a specific way of tackling the Welsh.
“Sometimes, if somebody has more physical power than you, then you’ve got to be light on your feet. Other times, if you think you can physically overpower a team, then you might play to that strength. I think it is about getting a balance in how you play and there’s a reality in that we’ve got five trainings before we play Wales. There’s a reality that you can’t reinvent the wheel; you can continually fine-tune it, but to reconstruct is very, very difficult.
“We have to change some of the things, we don’t have probably the best lineout forward in the world (O’Connell). We don’t have him anymore, so we’ve got to adapt and adjust there. We don’t have quite the same power in our tight five necessarily.
“Then you get excited about who you have got. Jack McGrath has been great for us and started the last four games last year. Anyone who looked at Nathan White when he came on against France, he did a great job. The other guys in the second row, that’s very much up in the air.
“Unfortunately, we lost Iain Henderson and then Dan Tuohy as well, because they’re the only two other guys outside of Dev and Paul O’Connell who have really been in our Six Nations squads and played with any regularity. Everything is always changing, it’s probably the only constant.”
Schmidt is confident he will have fly-half Johnny Sexton back and available for the first time since he was injured in the final World Cup pool game against France last October, despite the Leinster playmaker leaving the field early against Wasps last Saturday with a head injury, the latest in a series of concussive incidents he has suffered over the past 18 months.
“The only update was the alteration to the squad with Marty Moore going out. Johnny has passed his Head Injury Assessments, 1, 2, 3 and in conjunction with (former club) Racing Metro, we felt he received the best medical advice possible.
“He had that (12-week) period where he was stood down and since then he has been very sound. I think one of the things, he got tested straight away. He didn’t play against Italy (last season) because it was part of that period when he was stood down.
“Since that time he hasn’t really had too many problems. So as far as we’re concerned and as far as Johnny’s concerned he’s very keen to be ready to go in 11 days’ time.
“He trained really well yesterday. I think he’s good to go.”
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