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Challenges aplenty as Schmidt's Ireland seek first Six Nations win

Jared Payne’s injury doubts and leadership concerns on the outside won’t affect Conor Murray.

IRELAND HAVE A number of interesting challenges this week, and the doubt over Jared Payne’s fitness is chief among them.

The Ulsterman has developed into Ireland’s key defender since his Test debut in 2014 and though any defensive system is about the collective, Payne often looks like the man holding the Irish ‘D’ together.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt may be shorn of his key defender this week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He’s been carrying a hamstring strain since 50 minutes into the France defeat, finishing that game out despite the injury. He may well end up being ready to continue alongside Robbie Henshaw in the midfield this weekend in Twickenham, but Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall are standing by.

“There’s combinations that we can look at and use if Jared doesn’t make it through the week,” says scrum-half Conor Murray. “Communication is one of his key strengths and he’s been brilliant for us in attack and defence.

“I end up defending with him on my outside a lot from midfield scrums and he makes everything easier with his chat. He’s a very intelligent player and his movements are really smart.

He reminds me of Drico in terms of how they talk to you, they leave you in no doubt about what to do. Hopefully Jared makes it through and is fit for selection, but if not I think there’s plenty of combinations Joe [Schmidt] can look at and be confident with.”

In a way, Ireland’s season so far is encapsulated here. Injury to a key player and perhaps the opportunity for another man to step up and assume responsibility. That may sound exciting, but in the Test arena there are demanding lessons to be learned.

Shorn of Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, leadership is one area where there have naturally been concerns over Joe Schmidt’s squad before and during this Six Nations. They struggled somewhat with their game management against the French in atrocious weather conditions and the loss of Sean O’Brien only accentuates the need for players to step up here.

“I think we spoke about it before we kicked off in the Six Nations and there’s no hiding from the fact you lose someone like Paulie and there’s a gap in leadership,” says Murray. “That was the challenge in the beginning and there’s a whole host of players there that were stepping up and it was the likes of Seanie, he’s included in that.

Sean O'Brien goes down injured The loss of O'Brien is a blow for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s a guy that would really drive our defence and linespeed and other areas like that and now he’s gone obviously, unfortunately, with his injury. That’s another challenge for other players, maybe not in the same position, but for someone else to stand up and drive that linespeed, that defensive focus, that’s naturally going to happen.

“I’m not going to tell you there’s someone like Seanie to come in, there isn’t. Seanie is a huge asset for us and really drove that area for us. But I always go on about it – everyone knows what they’re supposed to do.”

Murray underlines that captain Rory Best is “driving home a few little concentration points throughout the week,” while Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip are providing further vocal support. The scrum-half sees no lack of desire to lead.

It’s a challenge, I’m not going to hide away from that,” says Murray. “It is a challenge missing players. We have to step up and that’s what we have to focus on this week and make sure it happens.”

It’s hardly a pattern, but Ireland have opted against shots at goal at two crucial junctures in their games so far in this Six Nations, firstly at 13-13 against Wales and then within the opening minutes in Stade de France.

On fine margins are international games decided, we’re so often told, but Murray feels Schmidt’s players are making positive decisions on the pitch.

“Hindsight is wonderful looking back and it’s easy to call it like that,” says the Munster man. “I think Joe puts a lot of trust in us on the pitch and if we feel it at the moment in time, we’ll make a call.

Rory Best Rory Best is growing into his role as captain. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“People will come together, Johnny and Rory and whoever else wants to chirp in, and have an opinion and we back ourselves. I think that’s a good way to have it, you can’t be robotic, you have to feel it out on the pitch and back each other.”

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Whatever about the doubts and even discontent swirling around on the outside, Schmidt’s Ireland aren’t going to reinvent the wheel this weekend in Twickenham.

Even if their midfield lynchpin is absent, even without the defensive linespeed of Sean O’Brien or the leadership of other missing men, even with big decisions to make in the heat of a Six Nations contest, their belief is that they are on the right track.

“I know we drew against Wales but from my point of view – and I’m sure other players have a similar view – was that it was a good performance and a great way to start the competition, and we showed what we can do and how strong we can be in attack and defence.

Our kicking game was good. It was not a complete performance but a lot of our areas were quite strong.”

“I know we got a draw but we look at the performance and we took confidence from that. The French game was a little bit of a hiccup and we didn’t take our opportunities and didn’t convert them into scores, especially in the second half.

“It is a little bit of a weird one to have two games played and not have any wins under our belts, but we are fully confident as a team and this is a huge week for us to prepare mentally and show what we can do and put in a performance.”

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Murray Kinsella

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