Joe Schmidt admits trip to Paris first up will be complicated
Jacques Brunel's revamped France will offer real test in Ireland's Six Nations opener
The annual Natwest Six Nations launch in the Syon Park Hilton certainly brought Six Nations weather, and as well as the dank, grey, wet, windy weather for the photo shoots, there were the usual suspects doing their things. While Warren Gatland was declaring that Wales, fifth last season, would win the tournament, Eddie Jones was mischievously stoking it up by again installing Ireland as favourites and Joe Schmidt, as good-naturedly, was doing his damndest to dodge that mantle.
Indeed, when the two bumped into each other outside the dailies’ briefing room, for no doubt the umpteenth time in the day, Schmidt quipped to Jones that he had just made England favourites.
Schmidt also has an ally in the bookies, who make the back to back champions even money favourites to complete an historic, outright ‘Threepeat’, albeit Ireland have narrowed to 6/4 second favourites, with the two set to meet in the tournament’s final game.
“Bookies don’t make money by being wrong,” said Schmidt with a smile. “You’ve got a team there that’s won 22 out of 23 Test matches over the last two years. They’ve beaten everybody they’ve come up against at some stage. As much as we might have been the team that managed to knock them over last year, the year before that they beat us at Twickenham. They’re back at home at Twickenham when they play us. I think you’ve got a number of other teams that will be very competitive so, look, as I say, the bookies don’t make money by being wrong too often.”
Eddie probably doesn’t want to face France first up because, last year, they almost beat them at Twickenham. That’s what they can do.
Jones also ventured that he wouldn’t like to be facing France first up away from home under a new coaching ticket and with a revamped team, describing it as a “tricky fixture”. One of Schmidt’s undoubted fortes is his in-depth analysis of Ireland’s next opponents, but given the circumstances, on this he was more inclined to agree with Jones.
“Yeah, one of the ways you like to try to future proof what is coming up is to try to control as many variables as you can and predict as best you can, who and how and what they’re doing to do. That’s pretty difficult to do. As well as that, Eddie probably doesn’t want to face them first up because, last year, they almost beat them at Twickenham. That’s what they can do.”
“You’ll get an enthusiastic response from the players. They’ve got a new opportunity from Jacques and they’re going to respond to that. They’re going to feel they owe the coaches their very best effort. They’ll owe 80,000 fans in there the same thing so it’s a complicated match for us. I think it’s one that has us pretty nervous.”
Ireland won back to back titles in Schmidt’s first two campaigns, before England’s two successes, and asked if it was time to win the tournament back Schmidt said: “It’s always time to win the tournament. We would have loved to have done it the last two years when we finished third and second.”
“I think England, you talk about favourites, they were second behind us the two years previous to the two they’ve won. They have such a strength in depth that they make other people’s times to win the tournament few and far between at the moment. Wales don’t finish fifth very often, they won a couple of tournaments before that. They’ll be desperate to show they’re back at the top table. I just think it’s going to be incredibly tough.”
For his part, Gatland said: “I think we’ll win the tournament.”
Schmidt, who noted that this was the youngest Ireland squad for a Six Nations in his time at the helm, admitted: “I’ve probably thought less about the tournament than I have in the last four years. 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 us investing in those players as much as we can in that very short window that we have to try to be as competitive to hit the ground running and put our best performance together in that first 20 minutes in France, let alone 40 or 80 minutes.”
Schmidt, along with Best, had to rush back to Heathrow for a return flight to the altogether warmer and sunnier climes of southern Spain where, as much at the behest of the players as well as the management, the 36-man squad is based for five days.
By his own standards simon Zebo didn’t have a great day in Paris a few weeks ago. It’s crucial at the time of selection that we know guys are in good form.
He confirmed that David Kilcoyne would not make the opening game, but might be fit for round two at home to Italy, while Jacob Stockdale should be training by the end of the week. “There is a potential for Seán O’Brien maybe to get back for rounds four and five,” he added, while also putting Garry Ringrose and Craig Gilroy in that category, whereas Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne were “longer term”.
As for Simon Zebo’s latest omission, rather pointedly Schmidt declared that the reason was the Munster fullback’s form rather than his decision to join Racing 92 at the end of the season.
Johann van Graan had described Zebo’s performance against Castres as his best in his eight weeks with the province, although Schmidt specifically highlighted the Racing game a week previously.
“He is in consideration like anyone else currently playing in Ireland. We felt Jordan was probably playing at a level that was appropriate to select him. Simon is great value to have in the squad, irresistible charm about him; always smiling, positivity great.
“By his own standards he didn’t have a great day in Paris a few weeks ago. It’s crucial at the time of selection that we know guys are in good form. There’s a bit of time in the Six Nations with Pro14 games that he can still strike a game.”
That seems a long shot now.
Rory Best has strongly intimated that a new two-year deal with Ulster and Ireland to extend his career has been agreed, or possibly even signed. “Yeah look, I feel pretty good at the minute, getting those three games in a row has been important for me, to show myself that I’m still capable and still enjoy playing at that level. Look, that has all been good and hopefully we’ll get something sorted out in the very near future.”
Looking ahead to Ireland’s opening game, he added: “Going to the Stade de France as well is another element for us, it’s a really tough place to go and play, and Irish teams, we haven’t had a lot of success historically there. It’s a great place to play in terms of atmosphere and stadium, but it’s also a very nice place for them to play. So that added to all the talent they have makes it a very, very tough prospect for us.”