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'We can't fall in love with ourselves and think it's going to happen again'

Joe Schmidt has been focusing in on the imperfections of last year’s Grand Slam campaign.

MOST OF US, when we’re talking about Ireland, tend to look at things like the record of 18 wins in their last 19 games.

The Grand Slam, the series success in Australia, the clean sweep of their November Tests for the second consecutive year.

Jacob Stockdale’s try against New Zealand, CJ Stander’s score against England after Tadhg Furlong’s sleight of hand, the drop goal in Paris.

Tadhg Furlong, Johnny Sexton and Rory Best celebrate winning the grand slam Ireland are the defending Grand Slam champions. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Ireland have provided so many moments of brilliance and racked up achievements so readily under Joe Schmidt in the recent past that it’s difficult to hone in on the negatives.

Schmidt, though, is a master of concentrating on those things that can improve. The Kiwi head coach is never one to rest on past glories.

So when Ireland have looked towards this year’s Six Nations, which begins for them with the visit of the Vunipola-boosted England to Dublin on Saturday, there is clear room for getting better.

“I suppose we can’t fall in love with ourselves and think it’s going to happen again,” says experienced wing Keith Earls. 

“To win the Grand Slam last year was massive, we knew how hard it was and what we had to do but I think we’re just going again now.

“The bug is there to win another one. We’re taking it game by game, whether it’s the championship or a Grand Slam – this group is quite good at enjoying success and then refocusing to go again, to try and retain the trophy.”

Schmidt has picked out a handful of imperfections from last year, most notably on the defensive side of the game.

Although Ireland claimed the Grand Slam, there were frustrations in how they conceded tries in the final quarter of the games against France, Italy, Wales and England.

“When you look at our defence last year in the Six Nations, even when we pulled away from teams, we kind of relaxed a small bit,” says Earls.

Jacob Stockdale and Teddy Thomas Teddy Thomas' 72nd-minute try nearly beat Ireland last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Teams nearly caught us in the end or else we kind of left in two or three silly tries that we shouldn’t have left in.”

Andy Farrell’s defence proved instrumental in Ireland’s November wins, most notably against the All Blacks, but he will be looking to inspire 80-minute displays in this championship.

But the search for improvement extends into “all aspects of our game,” according to Earls.

“It genuinely goes down as far as our catch-pass. We looked at it this morning when a few of our passes were behind us and maybe if they’d been in front, someone might have got through a gap.

“I think we’re a bit obsessed about having the perfect game. Trying to have the perfect game is impossible but we work hard on every aspect.”

The obsession stems from Schmidt, who is facing into his final Six Nations with Ireland in what is his final year in the job.

Earls says Ireland’s players found out about Schmidt’s decision back in November like everyone else and that there hasn’t been any formal mention of it in the training camps since.

“You just move on, the decision is made,” says the Munster wing.

“He’s been an unbelievable servant for Irish rugby and Leinster rugby. He’s made his decision, he’s got a young family and he’ll enjoy that because he’s been in this now a long time, even with Clermont.

“I suppose he had to be a small bit selfish and, look, he’s been a very successful coach, one of the best, the best I’ve ever been under. He deserves to go off and spend time with his family.”

- Originally published at 06.00 

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Join us to preview the Six Nations with Simon Zebo, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on Thursday @7pm in Liberty Hall Theatre Dublin.

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Murray Kinsella

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