Joe Schmidt understands the unique hold that a possible Grand Slam has over the collective consciousness but the Ireland coach is keen to get the point across that any manner of Championship title next month would be cause for celebration.
The former Leinster coach has won two Six Nations titles with the national team, in 2014 and the year after, but neither is celebrated anything like the 2009 success, claimed by a team under Declan Kidney which won all five games.
The current boss was an assistant coach under Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne back then but he still felt close enough to the story to appreciate the fairytale ending. “What’s rare is beautiful,” he said, alluding to the fact Ireland have only ever claimed two.
“For us, it would be fantastic if that was something we managed to do but it would be really special if we managed to get three Championships in five years. That would be an incredible representation of the consistency at the very top level of Europe.
“You throw in a few of the southern hemisphere results and it’s been an exciting time for some of these players to really test themselves. But these next two games, they just get bigger and bigger, don’t they?”
So, though the clean sweep would be “super special”, there was the usual party line of how no-one in his squad was looking past Scotland towards their end-game date with England at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
It was an engaged Schmidt that spoke to the media after yesterday’s open training session at the Aviva Stadium in which in and around 20 of his senior players worked out alongside their U20s counterparts while a few hundred fans looked on.
He was particularly keen to drag the Scots into the narrative.
Schmidt paid tribute to the work Cotter did in his time in Edinburgh and waxed lyrical about the improvements Gregor Townsend has made since by transferring his Glasgow Warriors template onto the national side
Complacency — that old rogue — will hardly earn an audience this next 10 days. Not with Ireland having lost to Scotland on the opening day last year and England having been routed north of Hadrian’s Wall last Saturday.
The manner of two of Ireland’s wins thus far should help, too, given the victories against France and Wales could so easily have ended in defeats. Schmidt may excel at the ‘aw shucks’ act sometimes, but it was hard to argue with him this time.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to scramble a win but if I’m sitting here in two weeks’ time and we’ve scrambled a win, I’ll take a scramble,” he admitted. “I’ll take anything we can get because they’re a very good side.”
As are Ireland. Clearly.
Schmidt suggested post-match in Paris that the manner of that dramatic, injury-time win would stand to them. It clearly did last weekend but the concession of six tries in their defeats of Italy and Wales remains a considerable cause for concern.
We’ve heard plenty of the head coach’s thoughts on this and his latest replies here were revealing. Especially the offering that Andy Farrell, his defence coach, is a “world-class” operator who “has the confidence of the players who know that the system works2.
The onus yesterday, as before, was instead on players who, through exuberance or inexperience or whatever else, have failed to fulfil their duties within the parameters laid out for them by the brains trust.
“You don’t fly out at Hadleigh Parks or Scott Williams and expect them to feel ruffled,” said Schmidt. “They’re going to say: ‘welcome, I’m going to manipulate you and make something of this for my team’. There are some learning experiences there.
“Do we have to learn quickly? Absolutely, because we can’t afford to keep conceding three tries a game. Andy’s doing a great job, not just with the team, but with individuals. Trying to get them to understand the pictures so they make good decisions.”
All of which raises a conundrum.
Jacob Stockdale is the perfect example of the mixed blessing that comes with youth. Eight tries in his first seven Tests is a ridiculous return but the Ulster wing continues to make the odd error when defending and that is costing his team.
At what point does risk outweigh reward? How many times can a young player be allowed err in the same manner at a level where one mistake can cost a side a game and, with it, the collective’s shot at immortality?
It isn’t just Stockdale of course. Nor is it just the youngsters. Schmidt talked about the “brutality of giving transparent information” in the review of the Wales game and some of the players singled out in unflattering lights were more senior in rank.
The Kiwi has been keen to instil confidence in his younger players in this championship, on and off the field, and he spoke yesterday about the need to nurture them carefully and delicately so that their confidence doesn’t suffer.
“Because once they’re burned, it can take a while to rebuild them.” Schmidt spoke about how it sometimes takes young players that fraction of a second longer to anticipate a play, on both sides of the ball, and that was contrasted further into the interview when talk turned to the just retired Jamie Heaslip.
Ireland’s head coach described the No.8 as a problem-solver, a calm presence who was always a reassurance to less grizzled colleagues on the field and one whose game intelligence was always evident.
“You’ve got guys seeing the game late and then making the decision to catch up. Jamie would see the game, predict what would happen next so that he could get in a position to contribute either side of the ball.
“He had a habit. People say, ‘it was lucky Jamie was there’. Not according to Jamie. Not according to us. You get lucky sometimes. He managed to have a knack of it. That probably becomes an ability to read the game more than luck.” Ireland will need a touch of both if history is to be made over the coming weeks.
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