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Hunters? Hunted? Schmidt's Ireland not interested in Hansen's perception

Joe Schmidt and his coaches have had some ‘very tough’ selection meetings ahead of the France game.

STEVE HANSEN ALWAYS seems to have a conveniently-timed press engagement that offers him the opportunity to send a little pressure in the direction of rival teams.

His latest effort was the suggestion that Ireland are struggling with the expectation of being the “top dog” after their win over the All Blacks in November.

“Instead of being the hunters, they are the hunted and it’s different,” said Hansen. “It’s different when you’re sitting at the top of the tree. It’s a different experience. Not many teams cope with it that well.”

Andrew Porter Andrew Porter at Ireland training yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Joe Schmidt would have read Hansen’s words with a smile, not surprised in the least to see the All Blacks boss looking to stick the knife in after Ireland struggled in their win over Italy two weekends ago.

And assistant coach Simon Easterby wore the hint of a grin when asked about Hansen’s comments yesterday, dismissing them rather quickly.

“We don’t necessarily see it like that,” said Easterby. “Last year was an extraordinary year. We had a lot of things go our way, we made opportunities, we finished things and it was great to be part of.

“The challenge is to keep those standards and whatever happens, you’re there to be knocked off. If you’re off 3 or 4% in an area, then maybe those things are highlighted more because of what you did in previous games or previous seasons.

“There’s always improvements that need to be made. Clearly, we’re there to be knocked off at the moment and it’s something that we need to deal with but it’s not something we’re getting overly worried about.”

CJ Stander, meanwhile, didn’t quite understand what Hansen was getting at.

“Is he trying to put pressure on us now by saying we’re the top team?” said the fit-again number eight. “Because they are the top team. Do they handle pressure well? Probably they do, but no I think we just take it week by week and take on who we’re playing.”

Ireland, who are preparing to face France in Dubin on Sunday, are very much focusing their energy on themselves.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is looking for improvement from his team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While they will always be extremely diligent with their opposition analysis ahead of games, Easterby alluded to the fact that Schmidt’s men are looking inward more than before, particularly given the fact that the French can be difficult to analyse.

“I think a lot of it is about us and what we can do, as opposed to concerning ourselves as much with the opposition.

“Sometimes, we over-analyse the opposition and we end up maybe not quite getting our own game right. I think that’s the most important thing for the next couple of weeks, that we focus on ourselves.”

With Stander being joined in returning from injury by Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan and Jordan Larmour, Ireland’s selection options have been strong this week.

Captain Rory Best, Cian Healy and James Ryan are also back after being rested for the Italy game, meaning Schmidt will be fielding a strong 23 even without the injured Robbie Henshaw, Joey Carbery and Dan Leavy.

“Very tough,” said Easterby of the selection process. “We had long discussions involved in nearly every position. That process will continue but it’s great because we have more depth at the moment.

“We’re still missing some key players and we’re still able to select a squad that we feel is right up there amongst the best and that’s a credit to what we’ve done over the last four years, credit to the provinces and the players and how competitive they are and how invested they are in trying to continually improve and push each other.”

Much has been said about the French backline, especially the Toulouse trio of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos, but Ireland forwards coach Easterby is concerned about what’s coming up front.

Jordan Larmour Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne are both back in the mix. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland’s lineout was poor in Rome last time out and Easterby expects that the French will compete aggressively in that area through the likes of Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Ituria and Sebastien Vahaamahina.

“Clearly they are big men and with that comes a challenge,” said Easterby. “We have to be nailed on with our technique and our ability to work as a unit better than them. Scrum and maul in particular, if we don’t get that right early then we give them that little bit of access into the game.

“I would always go with that sort of mentality, that we’re focused on winning that set-piece first, both sides of the ball, and then anything else outside of that is the next job.”

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Murray Kinsella

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