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European priorities for provinces but Six Nations looms for Schmidt's Ireland

The national team gathered twice over the festive period ahead of the 2017 championship.

WHILE SOME OF us may have eased ourselves into this first week of 2017, there was crucial work being done at Carton House under Joe Schmidt’s ever-watchful eye.

A group of just over 30 players gathered for a short Ireland camp, arriving for meetings on Sunday evening, going through a single pitch session on Monday morning and then dispersing early yesterday.

Photos of yesterday’s Munster training session in Limerick showed that the likes of Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Keith Earls were not at Carton House, so Schmidt clearly had to do without his international contingent from the southern province.

CJ Stander CJ Stander at Munster training in Limerick yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Preparations for a visit to Paris for the rearranged Champions Cup clash with Racing 92 appeared to be given priority, understandably so.

Ireland head coach Schmidt oversaw a camp of equally brief proportions on the 19th of December, his players visiting Carton House to go through a short series of meetings and walk-throughs, not even getting into a full pitch session on that occasion.

It all made for a rather truncated festive period for Ireland, whereas two-day camps are the preferred option at times like these, just over four weeks out from the start of the Six Nations.

Schmidt will, of course, have a full two training weeks with his team before this year’s opener against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday 4 February. Chicago in November showed that Ireland don’t always need an extensive window of preparation anyway.

For the provinces and their players, the return of the Champions Cup will take firm focus in the coming weeks. Another round of Guinness Pro12 action awaits Ulster, Connacht and Leinster this weekend, but Munster are straight into the thick of it as they return to Stade Yves du Manoir for what seems likely to be another emotional occasion.

Connacht’s trip to the Ospreys in the Pro12 is vital as they attempt to keep in touch with the top six, while Ulster face an important trip to the Scarlets as they look to move up from their current sixth position. Leinster must take a bonus-point opportunity at home to Zebre.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has been getting out to the provinces in recent times. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

All the while, Schmidt and his coaching staff will be plotting their attack on the Six Nations, after 2016 proved to be such a disappointing year in the championship for Ireland.

There were several unforgettable highlights in the subsequent Tests last year, but Schmidt won’t have forgotten the disappointment of a Six Nations campaign that saw Ireland win twice in their five games, as well as drawing against Wales in a brutal opener.

Once the Champions Cup clashes have been negotiated by the provinces, we can expect to hear Ireland’s players and staff stressing how difficult this year’s challenge is going to be.

The opener away to Vern Cotter’s Scots should get things off to a lively start, particularly with their Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell-inspired ability to create tries. Week two sees Ireland travel to Rome, where the presence of Conor O’Shea adds an element of intrigue.

Ireland host France following the first break weekend and Schmidt will have noted the strides of improvement made by Guy Novès’ men in November. There was attacking incision and creativity in abundance from les bleus, but perhaps most importantly their players showed work rate and a real hunger to represent the jersey. Another false dawn or the real deal?

10 March sees Ireland visit Cardiff, before they finish at home against Eddie Jones’ England in a fixture that is already causing major excitement.

CJ Stander, Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton dejected after the game Ireland were disappointed with their 2016 campaign. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That one is a long way off and, rather boringly, we will have to adhere to Ireland’s week-by-week policy as they look to negotiate the challenges before then.

There are many reasons for Irish confidence this year, none more so than the stunning victory over the All Blacks in Chicago just over eight weeks ago.

The quality of that performance from Ireland, collectively and as individuals, once again underlined what they can achieve under Schmidt and his staff, with the likes of Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner and Jack McGrath proving themselves utterly comfortable against the best.

It remains to be seen if Schmidt deviates too much from the winning formula of November, but there are going to be interesting decisions for him almost everywhere on the pitch.

Donnacha Ryan was unlucky to miss out on the win over the Wallabies, but Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane are worthy contenders for the second row berth alongside Devin Toner, although the Connacht man looks set to miss the start of the Six Nations.

In the back row, can Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier break apart what looks like the first-choice trio of Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander? Van der Flier certainly did his chances the world of good in November.

Keith Earls celebrates with Devin Toner Ireland are aiming to build on their November success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Out wide, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls started the final Test of that series, but how can Schmidt leave Simon Zebo out of his XV? Is the Cork man doing enough now to show that he must start for Ireland at fullback?

There are other conundrums for Schmidt, while he has naturally been keeping a close eye on Johnny Sexton’s condition. The Ireland head coach suggested post-Australia that the out-half might need “a window of time to really make sure that he can be more robust” after another hamstring issue, and so that has proved the case.

Leinster hope to have their star man back in action on Friday, and Schmidt will expect to see his first-choice 10 swiftly find his feet.

Paddy Jackson slotted in well for Ireland in November, while Joey Carbery showed his promise, but Sexton remains a key figure in Ireland’s plans as they look to wrestle back the Six Nations crown they held in 2014 and 2015.

The 2017 version is only around the corner, although four weeks can end up being a long time in rugby. Schmidt and his staff will be following every moment of the provinces’ endeavors with keen interest.

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the date of the Ireland v Scotland game as ’4 January’ and erroneously referred to Munster’s Pro12 game against Edinburgh rather than Ulster’s trip to Scarlets. Reference to Ultan Dillane’s injury was added after confirmation from Connacht.

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Murray Kinsella

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