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Ireland coach Joe Schmidt out to justify team's top three ranking

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The only time the confident smile across Joe Schmidt's face breaks is when expectation enters the equation. There's not much that makes the New Zealander squirm, but you can imagine the news that Ireland are now among the top three sides in the world giving him more sleepless nights than the prospect of making changes to his team.

Since taking over, the former Leinster supremo has deftly picked his way from the doldrums of seventh on the rankings table to third.

The tangible reward came in the form of victory over France and a Six Nations title; then the combination of last weekend's results propelled Ireland to nosebleed territory.

If Schmidt was aware of the prospect, he did a good job of pretending otherwise when the news of his side's elevation was brought to his attention.

"Really?" Schmidt responded when told. "I think it is a distraction. I do not think that we can win anything by saying we are third in the world. We probably have to tidy up our scrum a bit, get our set-piece right and just try to get those practical things right.

"I think it is fantastic, I think it is a feather in the cap of the lads who rolled their sleeves up for the last 12 months, but I cannot say it is something we will be talking about or even aware of."

It was a classic Schmidt response and it has been followed by a cautious mantra in the camp.

Ireland closed ranks on Monday, cancelling their press conference, and then came out dampening down expectations on Tuesday.

While Conor Murray said nobody was falling in love with themselves just yet, Simon Easterby was focused on processes rather than clean sweeps and Devin Toner spoke of the standards of performance needed if the team are to make it an autumn three in a row against Australia in Dublin on Saturday.

Perhaps Ireland are simply learning from the cautionary tale of their last clean sweep. The autumn of 2006 saw them reach the world's top three by beating South Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands before going on to enjoy a fine Six Nations when they were denied the title by a dodgy TMO decision on the last play of the tournament.

Led by captain Brian O'Driscoll, they began to dream big and vocalised their intentions. We all remember what happened next.

Current skipper Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Eoin Reddan and Gordon D'Arcy are the only survivors of the 2007 squad still involved on the playing side, while Easterby is a veteran of that time now on the coaching ticket.

With elite rugby being something of a small world, moves from seventh to third on the newly rebranded 'World Rugby' table are unlikely to go unnoticed.

Everyone is looking at this November's games through the prism of the World Cup next September and wondering what it all means.

Ireland will now have a target on their backs, even more so if they back up their fine win over South Africa with victory over a tired-looking Wallabies side.

If they do that, having won the Championship and claimed victory in Paris, it will mean they will fully deserve their place in the pecking order.

There is also the issue of depth. Ireland may be coping brilliantly with a long injury list at the moment but they remain more reliant than most on a few good men.

Every coach going to England 2015 will have men they won't want to lose, but few are as irreplaceable as Johnny Sexton, Mike Ross, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and O'Connell.

The coach is working his way towards compensating for the loss of O'Driscoll across the backline, but despite the progress made there is still a core of individuals whose health is imperative.

Schmidt, of course, has experience of being upwardly mobile. He has collected a trophy in each season since he arrived in Ireland in 2010.

Winning six games in a row should help his cause as his side become more and more steeled for success.

"Momentum gives confidence," Schmidt said.

"Confidence means that you don't need to work too hard to find solutions, you're just confident in what you're doing,"

The confidence across the squad is apparent.

Schmidt and psychologist Enda McNulty laid the groundwork, but nothing breeds winning like winning itself.

Belfast Telegraph


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