Sean Farrell reports from Carton House
THE WALLS OF ‘the bubble’ at Ireland’s training base take a battering from inside and out. Yet the protective sphere remains, insists Joe Schmidt.
The notorious level of detail which Schmidt tasks his players with understanding every which way also serve to limit occasions where focus drifts to occurences outside the walls of the 17th century Maynooth estate.
But even the most complicated minutiae surely can’t have blinded players completely to events unfolding in Belfast.
The purely rugby news of Les Kiss’ departure from Ulster was easily spoken through and brushed aside for another day. The far more serious matters of the ongoing trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding is far more difficult to bypass or square away.
The trial is expected to run for five weeks and Schmidt is correct in not commenting on it while it continues. However, the presence of Ireland captain Rory Best at Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday with Iain Henderson, also a starter in tomorrow’s match, leaves the idea of the distraction-free bubble well and truly burst.
Schmidt had no comment to make on the appearance of his captain at the trial, but Best himself is due to speak after today’s Captain’s Run at the Stade de France. Unless it is decided to remove that responsibility from the 35-year-old at the last minute.
“We’ll have to look and see what happens tomorrow,” Schmidt said when asked if Best would speak as normal the day before kick-off.
The integrity of the bubble remains formidable, says the Kiwi.
“The bubble stays the same. The size and nature of events may change from week to week. But, you know, we don’t directly influence those.
“We don’t control those circumstances and they won’t directly influence what happens on Saturday and the players are very good at just staying focused on what they need to do in the very short term.
“Anything else will be discussed or solved at a later date.”
It’s a dark backdrop to a Six Nations that should have been tinged bright with optimism for Schmidt’s Ireland. They enter as many people’s favourites to win the title and begin with a trip to face a French team in complete disarray off the field — on it, who knows? — and so this is a golden opportunity to claim a rare away win in the Six Nations and get the ball rolling on a Championship where momentum is continually key.
France are without a win in their last six games – counting a home draw with Japan as the best result since beating Wales in last year’s Six Nations – and yet, Ireland’s record in Paris means Les Bleus can never be approached as just another game. Tomorrow will be Schmidt’s third trip to Stade de France: he celebrated a two-point win, bemoaned a one-point loss and yet all logical odds are stacked heavily in Ireland’s favour.
“Am I confident? I’m hopeful that I’ll get a fast start. I know the French will want to get out of the blocks.
The worst thing you can ever do to a French side is write them off. I remember speaking to one particular All Black after the 2011 World Cup – where the All Blacks had really hummed their way through the Cup, France had done things like lost to Tonga and scrambled past a 14-man Wales team.
“Really they were incredibly unlucky (in the 2011 World Cup final) not to get a result there just because that is the unknown that they present. Probably similar to this weekend, they present an unknown challenge. We know the individuals they have and the quality they bring.”
To counteract that quality and deliver a fast start, Schmdt has placed a large degree of faith in youth with huge amounts of experience in close proximity. In earshot of Jacob Stockdale, there is Rob Kearney. With Josh van der Flier, there is Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Henderson will call the line-out and shepherd 21-year-old James Ryan through a Six Nations debut.
Yesterday, we alluded to the selection of a 21-year-old with as many Leinster appearances as fingers as a pick made for Japan 2019 as much as Paris in 2018. Schmidt, however, insists Ryan is very much a man for the here and now.
“Physically he has the frame for it, mentally he has a brain for it, he has an attitude for it, a maturity for it, and he has an athleticism for it. So when you combine those with the fact he has a skill, he is developing an understanding.
“And the best way to further development, is to challenge it. So for us, we want to keep challenging him because we are always challenging ourselves. It is a big day for him.”
It’s a big day for the bubble too. Schmidt is loathe to discuss anything outside of his own control, so from his side of the bargain, he is satisfied with preparation that has included a suprisingly cold warm-weather training camp in Spain and will be satisfied come kick-off (16.45 Irish time) tomorrow if there are no further deviations and anxiety-building surprises from outside or within the bubble.