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'Even the shortest Joe Schmidt camps are intense': Ireland's 24 hours in Belfast

Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne were all involved in this morning’s Kingspan Stadium session.

Image: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

AFTER CONNACHT’S SUPPORTERS got a glimpse of how Joe Schmidt and his Ireland team prepare at the Sportsground two weeks ago, it was the turn of the Ulster faithful today.

A slimmed-down Ireland trained against a group of the province’s academy players at Kingspan Stadium this morning, with Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne all involved.

Out-half Johnny Sexton was present too but did not train, having flown back from Paris yesterday. Racing Métro have, to Schmidt’s relief, given the 29-year-old the weekend to rest his hamstring twinge before hopefully returning to training next week with Ireland.

Heaslip took some part in the 15-against-15 portion of the session as he recovers from three fractured vertebrae, and the hope now is that the number eight will be available to train fully at some stage next week in the build-up to the Six Nations clash with Wales on 14 March.

Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for fans Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

O’Brien and Payne sat out the only contact drill at Kingspan as they continue their return-to-play protocols after suffering concussion against England last weekend, but otherwise were heavily involved in an intense work-out, O’Brien swapping in and out with Tommy O’Donnell at openside.

The likes of Cian Healy, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Felix Jones, Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin were not present having been released back to their provinces for the Guinness Pro12 weekend, but Ian Madigan remained to run at out-half with Sexton wrapped up and watching on from the sidelines.

Around 5,000 locals turned out to catch this open training session [though we’re told the IRFU could have distributed twice that number such was the demand], which was the culmination of a 24-hour camp for Schmidt’s men.

Having convened in Belfast yesterday, they got through two video review sessions, a light organisational run-out, a gym session and today’s high-tempo run-out against Ulster’s academy prospects before heading their separate ways for a down weekend.

Even the shortest Joe Schmidt camps are intense.

Fans at the open training session Around 5,000 fans turned up to watch Ireland train Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

While their analysis did of course include mention of the England win last weekend, attention has understandably centred on the trip to Cardiff, where a win would send Ireland to Scotland a week later in search of a Grand Slam.

Not that Schmidt is allowing his players to lose sight of their ability to remain concentrated only on the next game.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves, there’s still two games,” said flanker Tommy O’Donnell after today’s training session in Belfast.

“Last year, England were where we are now and ended up coming second, so you have to just treat every game from now on like a cup final. Scotland are waiting at the end, but we have to look at Wales first.”

In that regard, Schmidt will have been busy picking out any flaws he can find in the Welsh systems built by Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, but the Irish players are aware of what lies ahead.

Jack McGrath and Peter O'Mahony Jack McGrath and Peter O'Mahony take a short break Source: Presseye/Russell Pritchard/INPHO

“They’re a good attacking side,” explains O’Donnell. “They went to France and beat France last weekend – that’s a fair achievement. They’ve got very big ball carriers, incredibly physical players and they’re quite mobile and agile.

“They don’t take any prisoners in their pack, they’re great defenders and good at the breakdown. To go over there to Cardiff will make it a small bit tougher.”

Ireland regather on Sunday in the familiar surroundings of Carton House, but Wales will be in their minds throughout the coming rest days. Roll on Saturday, 14 March.

- Updated 18.00.

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Murray Kinsella

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