Joe Schmidt looking on the positive side of much-changed Ireland

Head coach changes five for Scotland encounter at Murrayfield

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt issues instructions during training at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt issues instructions during training at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Six Nations: Scotland v Ireland

Kick off: 2.15pm, Saturday. Venue: Murrayfield. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog begins at 1.30pm. On TV: Virgin Media and BBC One.

Beaten and bruised they may be, but not broken.

Coming off that English reality check and forced, for the most part, to change a third of their starting team, Ireland look decidedly vulnerable heading into Saturday’s Six Nations Test against a buoyant Scotland at Murrayfield.

Even still, there’s a decided bounce in their step. As a competitive, professional and, of late, highly successful group, another game could be ideal. Rather than dwell in the negativity of a rare defeat and lengthening casualty list, this opportunity is embraced positively.

Apparently, Joe Schmidt himself was bouncing at training in the squad’s Carton House base on Thursday, even if he’s had to come to terms with last week’s first loss at home in the Six Nations.

“I tell you what for me, it doesn’t get any easier,” when asked about his own mindset this week. “I was speaking to a group of coaches yesterday and they were asking me: ‘But surely your past results protect you from . . . ?’ And it doesn’t protect you from anything. It certainly doesn’t protect you from yourself.”

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton did not have their most distinguished outing last week

“Did we do enough work last week? Did we get them primed the way we needed to be when we knew that brutality was coming? Did we push too hard on the side of being disciplined, trusting that officials would take care of foul play? Were we too clean? Do we need to push the boundary more?” he said, in revealing his torment earlier in the week, yet also warming to the subject.

“And to be honest, I don’t think we do. I think we play a really physical game. I’m incredibly proud of the way our players play. They try to play within the laws and they try to commit fully to what they’re doing.”

“We were off last week and you do question yourself a heck of a lot. There’s not a hell of a lot of sleep that happens on a Saturday and Sunday evening, trying to decipher what’s best and what needs to happen next.”

“But one of the great things at the start of the championship is you have got to get straight on with the next game and so you’ve got somewhere to go. You’ve got to dust yourself off and immediately start to demonstrate your confidence in the group, because you can’t not be confident in the group.”

“What they have achieved is fantastic,” he said, citing the “resilience” demonstrated in the back-to-back titles of 2014 and ’15.

Seán O’Brien in action during the Ireland training session at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Seán O’Brien in action during the Ireland training session at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

As for five changes? “I think that’s perfect. It’s exactly what you may suffer later on in the year and therefore let’s invest in people now and let them demonstrate that they own the jersey and they have the right ability to contribute.”

In addition to recalling Rob Kearney, Chris Farrell, Quinn Roux and Jack Conan for the injured quartet of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Devin Toner and CJ Stander, Schmidt has also re-instated Seán O’Brien, with Josh van der Flier moving to the bench, where he is joined by Ultan Dillane.

While it was a “tough call” on Van der Flier, whom the head coach admitted was one of Ireland’s best performers last week, he explained: “It’s really just giving Seán an opportunity to work his way back as much as anything.”

“He’s very highly motivated. He does give us a little bit more ball carry, particularly in light of losing CJ [Stander]. He’s incredibly tough to shift over the ball and he’s got a great instinct for the ball.”

“He’s a great game sense as well. Not that Josh doesn’t, I just think Seán has a slightly more mature game sense because he’s seen the pictures, he’s been in the environment longer and been in those big Test matches more often.”

Schmidt agreed that even conceding three late tries in a bonus-point win at home to Italy was ideal for Scotland

Schmidt considered picking O’Brien at ‘8’ but said: “Seán knows number 7 best so we wanted to have that clarity for him and Jack Conan has rolled his sleeves up. He did a good job in Australia.”

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton did not have their most distinguished outing last week. “I think they are class players and class is permanent,” said Schmidt, pointing to the rustiness of both players.

“Yea, I’ve chatted to both of them, mainly to offer them the same confidence that so many people have in them, including the players, that they are outstanding contributors to our environment off the pitch, they are class players on the pitch and are just the sort of competitive animal we need going to a hostile environment, which Murrayfield will be.”

Gregor Townsend has recalled Simon Berghan and Josh Strauss for WP Nel (calf) and Sam Skinner (ankle), and Jonny Gray and Sean Maitland, the latter in place of Blair Kinghorn, who scored Scotland’s first championship hat-trick in 30 years last week.

Schmidt agreed that even conceding three late tries in a bonus-point win at home to Italy was ideal for Scotland.

‘Yea, I’m sure he cracked the whip about the three tries. They’ve shaken off a bit of rustiness and they’ve had an injection of rock-solid players in Jonny Gray and Sean Maitland – that class and experience he brings.”

“I think Gregor probably would have been happy if we’d won last week and thought he might catch us on the hop, but at the same time he’ll be happy enough.”

Recalling how Townsend phoned Schmidt soon after starting his successful tenure as Glasgow’s head coach, Schmidt said: “He is very much his own man as well. He’s got a good brain about the game. He’s analytical. It looks like the players enjoy playing for him and commit to playing for him. If you’ve got those things, then you’re in a pretty good place.”

“He’s a good bloke. I wish him well,” said Schmidt, “from Sunday onwards.”

SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Sam Johnson (Glasgow), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne); Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan; Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray (Glasgow); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow), Jamie Ritchie, Josh Strauss (Sale).

Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Rob Harley (Glasgow), Ali Price (Glasgow), Peter Horne (Glasgow), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh).

IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Quinn Roux (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), John Cooney (Ulster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).

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