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Target on our backs and time to start handling it, says Joe Schmidt

 

In charge: Joe Schmidt takes a training session at Carton House this week
In charge: Joe Schmidt takes a training session at Carton House this week
Joe Schmidt

By Jonathan Bradley

It was only 16 weeks ago that Joe Schmidt enjoyed what will go down as one of the great days of his coaching career and, in a wider sense, one of the most memorable games the Aviva Stadium has ever seen.

Off the back of a Grand Slam eight months prior, beating the All Blacks in Dublin for a first ever time was the sort of result that saw the standing of his side move into a different stratosphere.

That day, with the win sealed by a Jacob Stockdale try, Ireland felt on top of the world, even if the rankings still had them nestled in just below the team they had just beaten.

It was in his Dublin hotel the next day that the back-to-back World Champions' head coach Steve Hansen pondered how his compatriot's side would deal with the pressure of being seen as 'top dogs'.

While there are no doubt myriad factors at play, the early returns are not well after what has been a sluggish Six Nations leading into taking on France tomorrow (3pm kick-off).

When the side were last in Dublin they were comprehensively bested by England while the subsequent wins over Scotland and Italy have been flawed.

Those three games had Hansen doubling down during the week.

"Instead of being the hunters they are the hunted and it's different," he said. "It's different when you're sitting at the top of the tree. It's a different experience. Not many teams cope with it that well."

Yesterday, as he named a side to take on Les Bleus that showed seven changes from the one that beat Italy in Rome last time out, Schmidt acknowledged the shifting of the landscape.

"You don't have to look too far back to see that the All Blacks are the only team that stay consistently at the top," he noted.

"England won a Six Nations Grand Slam, they get there the next year, and then they are fifth. How does that happen with most of the personnel the same?

"I was speaking to Frank Azema in Clermont, they were champions one year and tenth the next. How does that happen?

"It's not apathy or overconfidence. I'm not sure how you might explain it. We are a real forward-thinking group so last year is certainly last year. It doesn't help you win anything this year. If anything, Steve is suggesting it hinders you. It certainly puts a target on you."

It was full-back Rob Kearney earlier this week at Carton House who noted that players were human when asked to explain fluctuation in form.

When it comes to the mental side of the game, Ireland have used a sports psychologist for years but Schmidt admits different characters will respond in various ways.

"There is a lot of trust in the environment that the player is taking a responsibility for making sure that he's in the best possible headspace and physical condition to get out and perform as best he can," he said.

"That's a continual challenge and you've got very much different personalities in a team. They all have probably the same competitive gene but across the board there are some very different individuals; some who exude confidence and others who continually question themselves.

"You know, it wasn't until I watched the documentary that they did after the Chicago game against the All Blacks that I really understood how nervous a guy like Andrew Trimble would get before a game. Here's a guy who's played 60 Test matches and his first thought in the morning is 'is this the day that people find out I'm not as good as I need to be?'

"When he says that live on TV, I'm going 'oh wow, I didn't really know that about Trimby'.

"So I try to get to know players as best I can but I also try to leave them to prepare themselves because I trust them to do it well."

Even with down weeks either side, Schmidt changed things up for the disjointed performance against Italy but the side he will send out against France is much closer to his preferred XV with Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy the biggest absentees.

With only a six-day turnaround to the championship finale against Wales in Cardiff, displaying some belated cohesion in the last two rounds would do wonders for easing the mushrooming concern building towards the World Cup later this year.

"We aren't happy that we have performed at a good enough level yet," admitted Schmidt.

"It is one of the things challenging the players and one of the things that means next week we will have light training on Tuesday then Thursday and into a massive Test match.

"We have had a bit more time this week so we are hoping that will afford us a little bit more opportunity to be cohesive.

"We have a few combinations who have played together before that will hopefully allow us to be more cohesive. When you throw players in it is pretty tough for them.

"You have to be up and running. We have not found that formula as yet with all the changes we have made but will continue to search for it because we have got to be adaptable enough so we can make those changes."

Nobody of course makes more changes than France. Not this time, though, with Jacques Brunel naming the same squad that beat Scotland in round three. Schmidt is no stranger to French rugby after his time as an assistant at Clermont and, in what will be his final Six Nations game in the Aviva Stadium, is expecting an entertaining encounter.

"They're not going to play within themselves, I think they're coming to play. Likewise, I don't think we'll try to play within ourselves," he said.

"I've had four appeals over the last couple of days from people looking for tickets and I think the enthusiasm of our support has not changed and we're incredibly appreciative of that.

"We've got to get into this game, stay in this game and then we keep the crowd with us. It's a responsibility we're conscious of and one I hope we deliver on."

Bradley's Verdict: Ireland

When Ireland were last in Dublin, it proved to be something of a harrowing experience. Two home losses for Joe Schmidt  and his men would be hard to fathom but the conditions seem sure to result in a game that will do little to bring about an increase in cohesion.

The return of Rory Best, Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson et al gives the side a more familiar look but this one could well end up being something of an arm wrestle that's far from easy on the eyes of spectators.

Belfast Telegraph

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