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Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt focusing on the positives of his enforced changes

Listening up: Sean O’Brien pays attention to what Ireland coach
Joe Schmidt has to say in training
Listening up: Sean O’Brien pays attention to what Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has to say in training

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Every moment of the week of the World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina in 2015 is etched in Joe Schmidt's memory and he'll have felt a lot of déjà vu this week as his players dropped like flies.

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He said yesterday that he always intended on changing things up this week but it is unlikely he would have altered a third of his team.

That was until CJ Stander was ruled out on Monday, and Devin Toner and Garry Ringrose on Tuesday, before Robbie Henshaw suffered a dead leg at training and failed to recover in time. So, Schmidt is forced to delve into his depth chart once again.

Already without Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion, the project of building towards being three-deep in every position is getting properly tested.

Ringrose's injury facilitated Rob Kearney's return, and Henshaw was expected to slot in alongside Bundee Aki until he pulled up.

So, Chris Farrell makes his return after a year away from the international fold; partnering the Connacht centre, who must feel like there's a revolving door alongside him given the turnover in sidekicks.

Up front, Schmidt has chosen like-for-like swaps; Quinn Roux goes from not being selected in the initial squad to calling the lineouts with Peter O'Mahony in a Six Nations game, while Jack Conan slots in for Stander.

Then, the coach has gone for the vocal presence of Sean O'Brien - yesterday linked with a post-World Cup move to London Irish - with Josh van der Flier dropping to the bench.

"I'm asked about having five changes, I think that's perfect," he said, finding positives in adversity. "You know it's exactly what you may suffer later on in the year and therefore let's invest in people now, let's get them out there and let them demonstrate that they own the jersey and demonstrate they have the right ability."

Ever since that fateful afternoon in Cardiff, Schmidt has been investing in his squad.

This is why he gave Roux his debut in the second Test against South Africa in 2016, why Conan started against Italy in last year's Six Nations and against Australia in the series decider last summer.

The squad building has progressed alongside the results, all with the focus on being ready for anything.

This week is a good test of that.

"I don't want to operate in worst-case scenario situations," he said. "Even in training, sometimes you might take a player off and say, 'Right, we've only got 14' because you are trying to cover as best you can those worst-case scenarios.

"Not only that, I think the coaching staff, we're pretty excited about seeing some of the guys who've come in.

"They're pretty excited about getting an opportunity. One of the worst things that can happen is you focus on who you don't have as opposed to who you do have.

"Who we have, Sean comes in, Jack comes in, they are a couple of really good players.

"Chris Farrell, he came in once last season (against Wales) and got man of the match. I know that he is incredibly motivated to do a good job.

"Rob Kearney, the solidity, the experience that he offers at the back, that isn't something that causes us great consternation.

"I don't know if you've looked back at his moments last week, Quinn Roux was really good off the bench.

"I thought he showed a real physical edge and our lineout didn't seem to suffer. I think Scotland are going to go after our lineout. They are going to close the gap and bump us. Whatever we do get is likely to be untidy."

All the while, Ireland are looking to bounce back from a hefty defeat on home soil, Schmidt's first in the Six Nations.

Before the tournament, he warned that the team could lose their World Cup momentum if they endured a difficult tournament and another below-par effort could further undermine their confidence.

"The bit I can't control is the result," he said. "The bit that the players can control is the performance.

"That has been our full focus this week. If we get a super performance and we're beaten by a better team because they are a good team, then we've got to accept that. And it will give us a benchmark and extra hunger for that first-round game in Pool A. Whatever way it works out result-wise, we can cope and we can use it for what we've got to do. Performance-wise, we have to be better."

Not that he felt the team needed the wake-up call they so bluntly got from England.

"I do look back sometimes (on defeats) and believe that, 'Right, yeah, we needed that real kick to get ourselves re-started'," he said.

"It's not a reality check that I believe we needed, it's a reality check for people externally that we're just as human as any other team and things can go wrong for us."

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