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Schmidt's Ireland quietly confident as they move 'in the right direction'

The Ireland boss is delighted his side have claimed nine points in their opening two Six Nations games.

THERE ARE TOUGHER times ahead, but Joe Schmidt might grant himself a quiet moment of satisfaction to see Ireland at the top of the Six Nations table after two rounds.

It is only by virtue of points difference, England having also taken nine match points from their opening two fixtures, but Ireland have made about as positive a start as Schmidt had dared to hope for.

Bundee Aki celebrates scoring his sides third try with Jonathan Sexton Johnny Sexton celebrates with Bundee Aki. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“If you’d said to me two weeks ago that we could have nine points and a 39-point differential from the first two games, I would have bitten your hand off,” said the Ireland head coach after yesterday’s eight-try win over Italy.

There were negatives in the performance – namely the three tries Ireland conceded – while the impending confirmation of the loss of Robbie Henshaw to a shoulder injury would be a bitter blow for Schmidt’s side.

Tadhg Furlong is a concern too – though Schmidt was more positive about the tighthead’s hamstring yesterday - and yet, overall, it’s been a happy first fortnight for Ireland in this championship.

Travelling to France, where Schmidt says Ireland have previously gone with “a bit of trepidation,” and emerging with a confidence-boosting, dramatic win via Johnny Sexton’s drop goal was a fine start, while yesterday saw them dismantle the Italians.

“We do feel that we’ve gained a bit of confidence in going to France and then having the home game against Italy to get that bonus point just allows us a bit of confidence in that we’re heading in the right direction,” said Schmidt.

The squad breaks up for a couple of days now, before reconvening in Athlone on Tuesday evening for a short two-day camp at Buccaneers RFC as they look toward a meeting with Wales in Dublin on 24 February.

Schmidt said Ireland will bring around 22 players into that mini-camp, with the remainder of the Six Nations squad released to play for their provinces next weekend, several of them needing the game time.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt's players with gather in Athlone next week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Schmidt will have reviewed the Italy game overnight and though he will run through some of the work-ons from the 56-19 win with his players when they’re back together on Tuesday, the focus is very much now on Wales.

“Wales will be a whole different scenario,” said Schmidt. “They play a lot of territory, they force you to bring the ball back against a full line of defence, they are very attacking as a defensive side and then they squeeze you and force errors.

“They have guys who are quick and turn things around very quickly, the likes of Gareth Davies getting that intercept [against Scotland] and Steff Evans on the edges.

“Josh Adams was very good last week along with some of the more well-known guys that we know are class – the likes of Scott Williams running their midfield and Leigh Halfpenny at the back.”

The Welsh are coming off a tough defeat to England at Twickenham, angered by a controversial TMO call going against them on a possible Gareth Anscombe try and convinced they can upset Ireland in Dublin.

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But there is a quiet confidence about Schmidt and this Ireland squad, even if the blow of losing Henshaw will be mighty.

“You do feel that you’re a chance when you can get those two wins and especially an away win first up,” said Schmidt. “You know that your next two games are at home, we haven’t lost a home Six Nations game in the five years that I’ve been involved so there’s a real benchmark and pride that we can hopefully defend.

“We’ve had one draw with Wales post-World Cup, when I felt we had to start again and build again. We probably had a couple of knockbacks injury-wise today, hopefully most of them are going to be ok, so it’s a bit of a wait and see.”

Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring their seventh try with Joey Carbery Ireland's confidence is growing. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With the likes of Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery getting further exposure for Ireland yesterday and 20-year-old Jordan Larmour winning his first cap, the sense of freshness around this Ireland group continues to shine through.

Schmidt has won two Six Nations with Ireland but he finds it a little difficult to compare this squad of players to those victors.

“Experience-wise, it’s a lot less,” said the Ireland boss. “You don’t leak guys like Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paul O’Connell, even guys like Mike Ross with 50 caps – there was so many caps in that forward pack that it’s a big shift for us.

“But there have been some exciting new players come into that forward pack, the likes of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy – who did some good stuff today but slipped off one tackle that he’ll be disappointed with and will springbroad to hopefully making sure of next time – and Jack Conan on his first start in the Six Nations.

“In the backs, I think Robbie Henshaw has been absolutely top class, I think he’s been a huge leader for us.

“The common denominator is the skipper, Rory Best, the evergreen man that he is and Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton particularly and probably for most of the part, Rob Kearney – that has been a bit of a spine for us through my five involvements in the Six Nations.

“It’s hard to make comparisons but I do know that we are where we are and we have nine points from two games and we’d love to have 13 points from three games.”

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