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'It would be really special if we managed to get three championships in five years'

Joe Schmidt says he must find a balance between being critical of young players and building their confidence.

CONFIRMATION THAT CHRIS Farrell is likely to miss the remainder of the Six Nations will surely have tempered the mood but there was a firmly positive atmosphere around Joe Schmidt and Ireland as they trained at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.

Schmidt simply adores being out on the pitch with his team, visibly buzzing with energy as he gets the chance to push his players, even within the more limited confines of a session that is open to the public.

No set-piece plays but a whole lot of intensity from Ireland’s players and Schmidt, who can barely stand still so enthusiastic is he to drive improvement.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is always energetic on the training pitch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Bundee Aki, Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney sat the session out as they manage their various bumps and bruises, while Iain Henderson was togged out but restricted in involvement. Johnny Sexton was not present at all, instead getting through some “off-feet conditioning,” according to Schmidt.

While they were shorter on bodies – Munster’s Sammy Arnold did get more exposure to Schmidt’s standards – the vibe from within Ireland camp is lively and excited.

Why wouldn’t it be? Ireland are three from three in this Six Nations and though the loss of Farrell will force Schmidt into another change to his midfield – with Garry Ringrose likely to come in at 13 – they look well placed to push on to a championship success.

While the possibility of a Grand Slam is one everybody’s mind outside the Ireland squad ahead of the clashes with Scotland and England, Schmidt points out that simply winning a title would be a fine achievement in its own right.

“I probably don’t fall into that ‘everybody’ because, jeez, I’d love to win a championship, you know?” said Schmidt post-training.

“But the Grand Slam is super special, especially here. 2009, I witnessed that from a distance. I was living in Clermont but I saw how people reacted, what it meant to people.

“When you’ve only had two of them, people talk about it because what’s rare is beautiful, you want it to happen massively.

“For us, it would be fantastic if that was something we managed to do but, for us, it would be really special if we managed to get three championships in five years.

“That would be an incredible representation of a consistency at the very top level of Europe, and you throw in a few of the Southern Hemisphere results and it’s been an exciting time for some of these players to really test themselves.

Joe Schmidt signs autographs for fans Schmidt signs autographs at the Aviva Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But these next two games, I think they just get bigger and bigger, don’t they? Scotland on that upward spiral, we’re at home in Dublin.

“We know the reality that if we can get the result there, then other people have to do something special to stop us from getting the championship.

“So it’s a massive short-term focus for us but for Scotland it’s a massive short-term focus because they know that if they get a result here, they go to Rome with what would be a massive result for them in the context of how they’ve built over the last two, three years from Vern Cotter through to Gregor Townsend.”

Schmidt readily states that his team need to get better if they are to take the opportunity ahead of them in this Six Nations, be it a championship or Grand Slam success.

Ireland’s defensive errors against Wales and Italy were up for discussion yesterday and Schmidt underlined again that his players must improve in this area.

Jacob Stockdale has come in for some scrutiny outside Ireland camp, particularly around his read wide on the left for Aaron Shingler’s try last weekend.

When asked if there is a limit to the mistakes young players – not specifically Stockdale – can make without fear of being dropped, Schmidt pointed to the need for balance in his feedback.

“It’s a really tough question because one of the things about young players is that you’ve got to be careful that they don’t lose their confidence,” said Schmidt.

“You’re always trying to build their confidence within, I suppose, the brutality of giving transparent information – sometimes that is brutal.

“The visual fact was shown in here [during analysis] this morning and it was tough for some people and some of those people were experienced players.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates after the game Stockdale has made a couple of defensive errors. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“But, with the younger players, we try to find a few positives for them as well. It’s one of the reasons why, even in placing young players sometimes, you might just keep your powder dry, get them into the environment for a while, get them to understand what the expectation is going to be, so that you don’t suddenly throw them into the fire. Because once they’re burned, it can take a while to rebuild them.

“Saying that a player has made the same error for maybe two, three games in a row, I suppose they’re less likely to make the error if it’s continually worked on and made reference to, so that they can see the picture better, so that they can develop a better understanding, so that they can deliver what’s needed.

“You’re always trying to continually build that spiral. Unfortunately, if you then don’t select them, the spiral of confidence starts to detract from any building that you have done.

“It is a balance because the other side of that brutality is selection where someone comes back from injury or someone else has actually come on in the latter part of the game and played really well.”

Whatever about the defence and the improvements that are required in that area of the game, Schmidt and his players can take belief from the manner of their victories over France and Wales ahead of the final two weekends of the Six Nations.

In Paris, that late Johnny Sexton drop-goal got them out of trouble, while Stockdale’s intercept try against the Welsh relieved the intense pressure on Ireland to seal the victory.

“I suppose you can only find out at the end but you can guess that it’s contributing, that it’s confidence building, that people think ‘jeez, even if we are under the pump, whatever side of the scoreboard we are on at the time, we can back ourselves. We still don’t start buttoning off, we still don’t start giving them too much time and space,’” said Schmidt of the benefit of those wins.

“I thought Jacob was incredibly well-placed. I know he took that intercept but I think if that ball goes to Justin Tipuric, he is on a 45-degree angle, the ball in flight, I think he can make that man-and-ball tackle.

“I think if it pushes over his head and he has got to go to the edge to defend, I think he has put himself in a position where he can push to that and other people can connect inside him.

“What we don’t want is… imagine if he had got nervous and dropped right out of the defensive line to try to cover every eventuality, then you are being too passive, then you are bringing Wales into it.

Joe Schmidt Ireland are looking forward positively. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“So, I thought he got that dead right. And his confidence allowed him to be up in the right position to keep that working.

“Yeah, I guess even for other players, there is a bit of a belief that even if it is tough, we are capable. Then you can believe in yourself, and maybe hopefully stick to the system, which we didn’t do as well as we’d like to sometimes.

“I think I said I’d bite your hand off after those first two wins and now that certainly hasn’t changed. February, 14 out of 15 points… gee, that’s perfect for us so far. The imperfect thing is that we know we’ve been vulnerable in some areas of the game.

“We know we won’t win the Championship unless we can make sure that we are good on both sides of the ball.”

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Murray Kinsella

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