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'A top-half finish would be good for us' - Schmidt dampens Six Nations expectations

The Ireland head coach says places remain up for grabs across his XV ahead of the opener against Wales.

JOE SCHMIDT SAYS a top-three finish would represent a good Six Nations campaign for his Ireland side in 2016.

With former captain Paul O’Connell having retired from international duty and Ireland facing two demanding fixtures to open the championship, the Kiwi head coach has looked to dampen expectations of his team earning an historic third consecutive title.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt was at the Six Nations launch in London. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Speaking in December, IRFU performance director David Nucifora stated that the “starting point” for Ireland in 2016 would be to defend their Six Nations crown, but Schmidt feels that stating such a goal again would be unfair to his players.

“To be as candid as I can be, I think a top-half finish would be a good Six Nations for us,” said Schmidt in London yesterday.

“We start with Wales [in Dublin on 7 February] and France in a six-day turnaround and then go to England. That could put us in a very tough position before we’ve even got our feet fully found in going forward.

If we could be in the top half that means we’d have to be in front of three pretty good teams. Yeah, I think being realistic…. you know, our dream would be to do what no team has done before and we’re not going to give up the dream, but we’re also reasonably pragmatic and practical in what we try to deliver and I think I would be unfair on the players if I said the only way to be successful is to win the championship.

“To be honest it’s never something that we’ve spoken about. We’ve been very much week to week in our focus.”

In that sense, the selection battle for Ireland is intense as Schmidt attempts to settle on his starting XV for the opening fixture at home to Wales.

Without O’Connell, Iain Henderson, veteran tighthead Mike Ross, his possible replacement Marty Moore, Ulster lock Dan Tuohy [name-checked by Schmidt] and Cian Healy, Schmidt admits that Ireland “don’t have quite the same power in our tight five necessarily.”

Joe Schmidt and Dylan Hartley arrive Schmidt arrives at the Hurlingham Club alongside England captain Dylan Hartley. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That said, the former Leinster boss is excited by what Ireland do have in the pack.

“Jack McGrath has been great for us and started the last four games last year,” said Schmidt. “Anyone who looked at Nathan White when he came on against France [in the World Cup] and we drilled them in that scrum, Nathan White did a great job. The other guys in the second row, that’s very much up in the air.”

In the back row, CJ Stander’s introduction to the squad adds a potentially dynamic element but Schmidt says there are a range of options for Ireland in that area.

Do you go CJ [at blindside] or do you go Rhys Ruddock, who gives you such power and his engine is so big he keeps going? Or do you flick Sean O’Brien over that side and put Tommy [O'Donnell] or Josh van der Flier on the other side, because I know Sean can play six.”

In the backline, Jared Payne’s return from injury with Ulster at fullback has led to widespread and justifiable suggestions that he could usurp the incumbent Rob Kearney in the 15 shirt.

Robbie Henshaw has been run at fullback by Connacht this season too, but rather unsurprisingly Schmidt suggested that he still views both men as midfield options. Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Luke Fitzgerald provide further depth there.

“I think in the end Jared has only had two games [at fullback] so he’s filled in pretty well and they’ve been solid games and he’s moved into the midfield in both of them towards the end of the games, so he hasn’t really played a lot of anywhere,” said Schmidt.

Jared Payne scores a try Payne is a contender at 15 for Ireland. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

“And Robbie’s still played more in the centre than he has at fullback, so they’re pretty comfortable in either position.

“For us, it is certain that we have a few midfield options there, so there is the opportunity to drop them [Payne and Henshaw] back [to 15] and at the same time they’re probably both fairly short of game time at the moment.

I think there are a lot of questions in our heads at the moment and we’re not sure.”

Payne and Henshaw both look likely to play for their provinces this weekend as they look to gain more minutes before the Six Nations, with Schmidt saying a total of six to eight players will be released from Ireland camp because they are “short on game time or short on game time in a particular position.”

Thereafter Schmidt must select a side to face Wales and allow Ireland to make a positive start to a championship in which a top-half finish is the Kiwi’s stated aim.

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Murray Kinsella

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