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Ireland Rugby: Top-two finish is still the target for Joe Schmidt

By Tony Ward

Early Six Nations momentum is important but, as we discovered last year post-Cardiff, the best start imaginable by an Irish team is no guarantee as to what might follow.

In 2013, our season disintegrated after that wonderful opener against Wales, going from bad to worse and culminating in our first ever loss to the Italians in the final game in Rome. So much, therefore, for the momentum theory.

Of course it helps enormously to get off to a good start as winning breeds confidence but modern-day planning extends so much further than that.

There are now three very clear strands to the Six Nations season. An early block of two in which Ireland and France were gifted back-to-back home games followed by one stand-alone fixture and then the final fortnight home and away for each of the teams.

For Joe Schmidt and Ireland, the plan was simple – beat both Celtic nations on our own patch and see where that takes us. We were slow out of the blocks against the Scots but efficient and effective when sealing the deal in the second half of that opener.

Against the Welsh, we hit the ground running and in terms of intensity never relented. It wasn't perfect but if offered the same level of performance in London in 11 days' time, we'll take it without blinking.

The big problem now is keeping a lid on the hype as expectations of a 2009 repeat increases by the match. We are in a good place and let's not pretend otherwise. There is an air of quiet confidence and clever organisation about the Irish camp.

I doubt I am alone when saying the overriding feeling is of an emerging squad in extremely competent hands.

Is there enough to take a Triple Crown, a Grand Slam or a Championship? There is, but our next outing will be the toughest of all. England, despite losing 'Le Crunch', appear the most formidable of the six.

Rest assured, Joe Schmidt will come up with a plan to allow Ireland to test the English in every way. But in terms of a first-phase report – and despite Ireland and France leading the way – the pecking order for me is England, Ireland, France, Wales, Italy and Scotland in that order.

That Stuart Lancaster's side lost in Paris was a travesty. They hammered Philippe Saint-Andre's Gallic troops everywhere but on the scoreboard. Not surprisingly, they followed it up with a Murrayfield romp against Scotland.

I fancied England to take this year's Championship and still do. They need to unearth a creative midfielder but that apart they are rock-solid in every other department, while in the Vunipola brothers, Dylan Hartley, Ben Morgan, Courtney Lawes and now Luther Burrell, they possess serious gain-line breakers.

I also see so many similarities between Lancaster and Schmidt. Neither is set rigidly in his ways and despite England's obvious forward strength, Lancaster is no slave to a one-trick-pony approach.

It will be fascinating to see how Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree go about moving this English juggernaut around. Both countries are still in Triple Crown and Championship contention, so for one team the Twickenham outcome could set up their season and put the foundation in place for a really meaningful assault on RWC 2015.

The way the fixtures have panned out, I suspect the incentive for England and Ireland to be even greater when they run out on Saturday week given that Wales and France will have done their thing in Cardiff the night before.

The French are clearly on the scent of another Grand Slam but are a long way from being the finished article on the evidence to date.

As history records, they are well capable of hitting the principality and winning but, poor though the Welsh have been in their two games, I will be surprised if they fail to get their assault on a third successive title back on track.

If that is the Cardiff outcome then the Twickenham incentive will be even greater still. A home win and the title is England bound. An Irish success (our record there is good) and everything is possible.

The Championship will not be decided in round three but I suspect the wooden spoon will when Italy and Scotland meet in Rome.

Before a ball was kicked in this campaign, I went for England, Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland and Italy in that order. The order has changed slightly but England v Wales on Sunday, March 9 and France v Ireland on the final day will, I expect, ultimately decide it.

But irrespective of what transpires in Twickenham, the buzz is back in the Irish side.

The new head coach is well aware of the adage 'only as good as your last game' and yet already there is that sense of a man in total charge, a man who takes a step at a time and plans accordingly. Schmidt demands of others only what he demands of himself in terms of preparation.

It is that work ethic and mindset that makes for the highest standards and, from what I am hearing, the non-Leinster-aligned players are buying into the new set-up.

The IRFU knew they had landed a good one in his time at Leinster but only since making him the main man have they come to appreciate just how inspired this appointment has been.

His target of a top-two finish is still the most realistic aspiration and, no, there's no hint of Jose Mourinho's 'little horse' in that assessment.

The psychologist supreme cannot control the level of expectation – that comes with the territory – but what he can control is how his players react in the Twickenham build-up.

For now, that is the main objective and a good place to start. Time to draw breath as phase two of the Grand Plan beckons.

Belfast Telegraph


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