David Hennessy was at the launch of the RBS Six Nations when captain Joe Schmidt told him about going into the tournament as favourites counts for little
“Favourtism is a superficial thing, there’s nothing tangible,” begins Ireland manager Joe Schmidt. Schmidt’s Ireland team go into this Six Nations championship as holders and favourites after a clean sweep autumn series. “You can’t reach out and say, ‘we can take that favouritism and do something useful with it’. I think we’ve tried to remain as pragmatic as we can be and just say: ‘What can we do that affects our preparation in a tangible way, that can help improve an individual and his skill execution, preparation or our continuity, our clarity, our unity and what we’re trying to do. It’s not something that is mentioned in camp so it’s often externally that it’s talked about rather than internally.”
Schmidt took Leinster to Heineken Cup victory in both 2011 and 2012. When he took over from Declan Kidney in 2013, Ireland were ranked 13th in the world. After leading them to Six Nations glory at the first attempt, they now sit third, behind only New Zealand and South Africa.
But Joe is quick to talk about the slim margins by which Ireland achieved a famous victory last year. It looked like Chouly had won it when he dived over in the corner but the TMO ruled the final pass from Pascal Papé moved forward: “We may have won it last year although on the basis of one pass in the last few minutes, we could have finished third instead of first so that’s how fine margins are and I think if we’re not going to progress and we’re not looking to get a little bit better at what we’re doing, I think you do get left behind.
“I watch other teams and I know they’re getting better. I think the first game, Wales v England, is going to be a sensational game and I’ve no doubt that will set a bench mark that will be ahead of what we did last year in the Six Nations anyway so we’re going to have to be ready to reach that benchmark.”
Ireland have been rocked by the injury to number ten Jonathan Sexton, throwing his Six Nations into some doubt. Could the former Leinster fly-half feature? “Yeah, Johnny’s progressing really well. Having done a fair bit of training, he’s had no negative responses physically so we’re hopeful that he will gain clearance and everyone will be happy that he returns to the game. He would then become available either post-Italy or post-France and that would allow him to put his hand up for the remainder of the tournament.
“I think a couple of crucial injuries do force you to adapt a little bit and if you don’t adapt well enough, you do become vulnerable so we’ve been trying to build an ability to be adaptable regardless of the personnel.
“We’ve had a number of changes in personnel, some through retirement and some of those were very strong characters for us and at the same time, there’s been not an influx but there’s been a gradual seeping through of other players who have stepped up to the plate.
“One of the factors last year is that we used 18 players across five games and that included Paul missing the first one through illness so that was a massive luxury for us that we were able to have that continuity throughout the tournament. Maybe we don’t get that luxury this time, we have to demonstrate a little bit more depth and flexibility in being able to cope without players and undoubtedly we’ll have to cope without players.
“I know that all the teams have an injury toll to some degree, some less than others, and I think there’s a couple that are going to be very close to full strength and I think they’re going to be incredibly tough to beat.
“Obviously for us, we’ll be missing some key players certainly in the early rounds and hopefully we’ll get some of those back but inevitably we’ll either lose some or we won’t get them all back.”
Asked if he can sympathise with Stuart Lancaster whose England squad have been rocked by more than a dozen injuries, including fly-half Owen Farrell? “I could list twelve of our own. I think we’re all reasonably realistic about how that works: Whether it’s through injury or suspension, you lose players and we just know it’s part and parcel.
“What is difficult and I would sympathise with Stuart is the mass of expectation that goes with being the England coach, that doesn’t change regardless of who you’ve got available and I think that’s something that England cope incredibly well with.”
It’s often said that managers learn more from defeats from victories. Have Ireland learned from their impressive autumn series and the victorious Six Nations before that? “Last year we lost the one game at Twickenham to England and I think we had to learn some things about ourselves after that, but we also learned things in the Italian game about how important it is to stay strong through to the end of the game because if you do end up on the same points, then the points differential becomes important.
“We learned also in the French game that we’ve still got to get better still at closing a game out because we still left that in their lap and thankfully they didn’t quite take hold of it but they are very capable of doing so and we might not get lucky next time, so you’re learning from those last three games. The three games in Autumn, we learned a lot as well. I think we were lucky against South Africa, they knocked two balls on in the first half inside the 22. If they keep that pressure on and they score, the whole game might have been different so we’re always trying to problem solve elements of the game and that doesn’t change, I don’t think, whether we win or lose.”
The Kiwi contingent of coaches in the Six Nations has increased with Vern Cotter taking charge of Scotland, joining both Joe and Warren Gatland of Wales. What do the New Zealanders bring to the game in this region? “It’s obviously not visual,” Joe says indicating to his own face and to make the room of journalists laugh. “Don’t tell VC I said that. He’s a lot bigger and stronger than I am and I’m not saying he’s ugly at all!”
For more see this week’s the Irish World with a definitive guide and wall pull-out to note all the scores