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Will Ireland coach Joe Schmidt enjoy his honeymoon?

By Niall Crozier

New Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, his back-room staff and their players assembled at Carton House on Sunday evening to begin preparations for the forthcoming autumn Guinness Series.

The Schmidt era gets under way with a trio of Aviva Stadium matches against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand on November 9, 16 and 24 respectively and the new coach knows his honeymoon period will be shortlived if Ireland do not start – very quickly – to show signs of much-needed improvement.

Beating Samoa can no longer be taken as a given; at this stage the guests are ranked seventh in the world; Ireland are eighth. In the past 12 months the Samoans have beaten Wales, Scotland and Italy. To put that in perspective, remember that the Welsh are the defending Six Nations champions while the Scots and the Italians registered home victories over Ireland in last season's championship.

Australia are fourth in the International Rugby Board's world rankings, though Ireland's record against them – particularly in Dublin – is reasonable.

New Zealand? Suffice to say that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks, who as well as being the reigning world champions are still the IRB's number one-ranked team, the recent Four Nations Championship having done nothing to dent their crown.

The Kiwis continue to set the standard others must surpass if they are to knock them from the top of the tree and at this stage there do not appear to be any really serious contenders to their billing as the world's best.

In view of his excellent record with ASM Clermont Auvergne, where he and Vern Cotter guided the French club to new heights, followed by his phenomenal success as his own man with Leinster, Schmidt comes to the Ireland job carrying a considerable weight of expectation.

But even at this early stage he is having to face some of the problems which beset his predecessor, Declan Kidney, whose final match in charge – against Italy in Rome back in March – saw his ravaged squad reduced to its bare bones.

Already minus the services of injured septet Iain Henderson, Craig Gilroy, Richardt Strauss, Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan, right now Schmidt must be hoping that fate has not decreed to deal him a similar hand.

If he is worried on that count, no-one could blame him. The weekend saw world-class flanker Sean O'Brien pulled from the Leinster line-up during the warm-up for Saturday night's PRO 12 inter-pro against Connacht at the RDS after failing to recover having rolled his ankle. The night before that, Ulster hooker Rory Best suffered a similar injury against Cardiff Blues.

Meanwhile, Munster pair Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls were withdrawn from Friday night's top of the table clash with Glasgow at Scotstoun due to a calf strain and knee tendon problem respectively.

Calf problems have begun to spring up everywhere of late, it seems. Leinster, Ireland and Lions centre Brian O'Driscoll has been a victim of one, his game-time to date in 2013-14 consisting of 73 minutes against Cardiff on September 27. With O'Connell – the Irish team's other natural leader – now a fresh casualty of this new scourge, Schmidt could be forgiven for believing that there is some sort of force conspiring against him.

Following his side's Heineken Cup victory over Montpellier in France, Ulster's Ireland tight-head Declan Fitzpatrick made his exit from Stade Yves du Manoir with an ice-pack strapped to his right leg. He cried off last Friday, too. His problem? Calf.

The launch of Schmidt's reign marks the start of the countdown to the 2015 World Cup and though that will come round quickly, there is a lot of rugby to be played between now and then.

But with that tournament in mind it is important that Ireland start building now, for which reason they must start providing proof that they are moving in the right direction.

Ulster look like being able to help, for already there are encouraging signs that two years hence they could be providing a sizeable number of Ireland's players on the World Cup stage.

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