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Ireland target top two in what may be most competitive Six Nations yet

Joe Schmidt is hopeful his key players can stay injury-free in the 2017 championship.

WHILE IT’S ENGLAND who bring a winning streak of 14 games into the Six Nations, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland seemed to be talk of the town at the 2017 tournament launch in London yesterday.

Beating the All Blacks counts for an awful lot in this part of the world.

Joe Schmidt and Rory Best Joe Schmidt and Rory Best at yesterday's Six Nations launch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Eddie Jones said Ireland have “set world rugby upside down” with their achievements in November, while Scotland boss Vern Cotter said “Joe is leading the way with Ireland” in terms of the rise of Northern Hemisphere rugby.

Cotter, whose side host Ireland in Murrayfield on the first weekend of the championship, went on to state his belief that 2017 could see his old mate from Clermont guide Ireland to their third title in four years.

“I’m sure VC said that,” said Schmidt with a laugh when informed. “A little more expectation on my shoulders and a little off his shoulders maybe. He has got bigger shoulders than I have!”

Schmidt has always been keen to manage expectations in Ireland and he has largely set realistic Six Nations targets for his team.

In 2014, the head coach spoke of a top-two finish and Ireland won the Six Nations. The same occurred in 2015. Last year, Schmidt said a top-three finish would be acceptable and Ireland duly came in third.

So what of 2017?

“The last three years I kind of had to put the pin in the wall and make a marker and I think I said in the first two years that a top-two finish would be something I would be really happy with.

“Last year, just on the back of losing so much experience and so much ability through injury, it was a bit of a rebuilding time for us. I think we built not too badly.

“I think it is going to be more competitive than ever [this year], but again it would be great if we could get a top-two finish.”

Guilhem Guirado, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Sergio Parisse, Alun Wyn Jones and Greig Laidlaw The Six Nations captains at yesterday's launch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt follows up by stressing the quality of the opposition in this year’s competition. He mentions the “incredibly tough” England, speaks of Guy Novès’ conviction that France are rising, and says Wales are a “sleeping giant”.

Scotland now have crucial strength in depth, according to Schmidt, while he points to Italy’s win over South Africa in November as proof of their growth under Irishman Conor O’Shea.

Ireland are available at 9/4 to win the Six Nations with many bookmakers, England remaining the favourites, but Schmidt points out that the shortening of his team’s odds this season doesn’t necessarily mean much.

“The bookies had us 13/1 against the All Blacks, so I am not saying they get it wrong all the time, but that’s a long way wrong,” said Schmidt.

“I am sure our odds would have shortened as compared to last year because I think there has been some visible growth in the team and we have tried to expand the depth.

“You know, nothing protects you from injuries to key players. That could still happen and derail you a bit, but hopefully we will be as well prepared as we can be.”

With key players in mind, the latest issue with Johnny Sexton’s fitness must have been particularly unwelcome for Schmidt.

The Leinster out-half limped off in the first half of Leinster’s draw in Castres last weekend and again approaches a Test window with doubts surrounding him.

Back in November it was a hamstring problem, and Sexton ended the series with an injury in his other hamstring issue. Last summer, he missed the tour to South Africa due to the need for shoulder surgery. Now, it’s said to be a tight calf.

Johnny Sexton Sexton is on the way back from a calf issue. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Schmidt stated his confidence that Sexton will be ready for Murrayfield, and said the out-half may duck into the Santry Sports Clinic for a top-up of his rehab in between Ireland training this week.

Sexton had only played twice after recovering from his hamstring injury, before the calf issue struck, meaning he does not have a huge amount of rugby under his belt ahead of the Six Nations.

“He tends to be a player who plays quite well fresh,” said Schmidt in that regard. “There are some players that need to get a real rhythm but I’ve been working with Johnny for almost seven years and in that time I’ve found him really quick to be match-ready.”

While the hope is that Sexton is fit to play next week, Schmidt did point out that Ireland have a capable replacement in the event that the Leinster man is not.

“At the same time, Paddy Jackson has become a key player for us,” said Schmidt. “He has played a lot more Test rugby than Johnny at number 10 in the last seven Test matches, so with Paddy there he slots in.

“Paddy is very calm, he does his homework, he’s always well prepared, so we feel that the bases are reasonably well recovered. If Johnny comes in and trains next week it’s almost an advantage for Paddy that he gets in the saddle this week and can run the show.”

Jackson’s increased experience is in part down to the injury problems Sexton has suffered in recent seasons, but Schmidt also believes that players like the Ulsterman represent the regeneration of this Ireland squad.

The 2016 Six Nations was seen as a transitional one for Ireland in many quarters, and while Schmidt doesn’t agree with that tag – “I think you are always in transition” – he does stress agree this squad has undergone some change in the 18 months or so.

“When you don’t have your talisman Paul O’Connell, when Peter O’Mahony’s out, when you don’t have Mike Ross – as important as he was to us then…

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is looking for a third Six Nations title in four years. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“People have said, ‘Ah, Tadhg Furlong, he’s developed overnight into this great player.’

“Tadhg Furlong was at the World Cup with us. Tadhg has been learning his craft right through that. He was in South Africa in the second Test and had a fantastic day in the scrum.

“The next Test he came off the bench and was under massive pressure. You don’t suddenly learn and then tick a box and say, ‘That’s done forever’. It’s like any skill; if you leave it alone for a little while, you’ve got to pick it up and get it back into the rhythm again.

“For us, with our transition, there’s a number of players – half of this squad of 40 players [for the 2017 Six Nations] – have got less than 10 caps.

“So, we still don’t have a massive amount of experience but I think we’re growing and I suppose we’ll measure the growth a little bit at the end of the Six Nations and beyond that because we know that you’ve got to keep going in a really positive direction.

“Because everyone’s trying to build a stronger, deeper, more competitive group.”

– An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Scotland coach Joe Cotter; the Scotland coach is Vern Cotter.

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Murray Kinsella

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