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Farrell factor looms for Ireland as Schmidt looks to build for South Africa

The Englishman will join as an assistant coach early next month.

WHEN YOU ASK Joe Schmidt to highlight the biggest work-on for Ireland in the coming months, he almost immediately mentions Andy Farrell.

A three-Test tour to South Africa lies ahead, a deeply arduous task as Schmidt’s Ireland look to do what no Irish team has done before – beat the Boks in South Africa.

Simon Zebo and Robbie Henshaw celebrate the end of the game Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo celebrate the win over Scotland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With Ireland looking to grow and improve after their third place finish in this year’s Six Nations, Englishman Farrell will be one of the key influencers. His contract begins on April Fools’ Day, but Schmidt is certain defence coach Farrell will make an positive impact.

The former England assistant coach joins on a contract that runs into the 2019 World Cup, and it would be fascinating to see what happens with Farrell if Schmidt leaves the Ireland job at the end of his current deal in 2017. Short-term, the pair will link up as Farrell joins Schmidt’s backroom team.

Reflecting on Ireland’s Six Nations campaign, Schmidt says he will review the tournament in depth before picking out key areas to improve, but defence is one that springs to mind straight away.

“Andy Farrell will come in, and it will give him an opportunity to kind of contribute, particularly on how we’ve defended and what we need to improve there and on what we’ve done when we’ve had the ball,” said Schmidt on Saturday.

I’ll look back on all five games. I’ll probably look at the other games that were played as well and see how other teams coped against each other and try to just rationalise what are the priorities for us.

“The one thing you don’t want to do is make this potpourri and pull a bit from all over the place and not have a clear direction. You want to have a clear list of priorities that you make sure you are delivering on and work from there.”

Schmidt says Ireland will get some benefit from the fact that Ulster, Munster and Leinster do not have European knock-out matches to play this season by bringing a squad in for a training camp on either quarter-final or semi-final weekend.

Schmidt values any face time he can get with his players, and Farrell will certainly enjoy having an opportunity to introduce himself and his working methods in that camp, but there is also disappointment that many Irish players – Connacht’s aside – will not get a chance to play in big European ties.

“I would think the best thing for us always is when those teams are playing in Europe, especially the play-offs in Europe,” said Schmidt.

Joe Schmidt speaks to his players Schmidt's contract expires next year. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“That’s the closest thing we can get to Test preparation. That’s the closest thing a player coming through the system can get as a stepping stone to full Test match rugby because there is a difference. Hopefully, there will be a bounce back next year.”

The lack of Champions Cup ties means Schmidt believes the inter-provincial clashes between the four Irish sides in the coming weeks and months are more important than ever.

“I think the derby games have a real edge to them when you match up who is going to be playing,” said Schmidt.

“I know that Connacht-Leinster next week is going to be a humdinger; I’m looking forward to the game. In the midfield you may well have a Robbie Henshaw and a Garry Ringrose in amongst a Ben Te’o and a Bundee Aki potentially.

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“And you may well see a Matt Healy come up against a Dave Kearney, who was certainly in the squad and who was going well against France until his shoulder got knocked.”

Whatever about the impressions made in those derby encounters and in the Guinness Pro12 play-offs, it is difficult to see Schmidt experimenting too much on the tour to South Africa in June.

The Kiwi stresses again that he handed out five new caps in the Six Nations, before underlining that a first-ever win in South Africa is the priority and experience could be essential.

“One of the best things about having experience is that those guys have a really important IP [Intellectual Property] that they pass on to those younger players.

“And so to suddenly say, ‘He is past his use-by date’ and throw him out… sometimes you get some real benefit from that guy being around,” said Schmidt, pointing to Brian O’Driscoll’s tutoring of Robbie Henshaw in 2014 as a prime example.

Jamie Heaslip with Stuart Hogg at the end of the game Stuart Hogg and Jamie Heaslip embrace. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“There is no perfect answer because you have only got 10-12 Test matches per year, that’s not a lot of 80 minutes when there is always massive pressure to win them. There is a massive pressure to try and get one in South Africa.

“In our rugby history we haven’t managed to get one win in South Africa, so it would be fantastic to get there and try to put a performance together that is sufficiently good enough to put us in the mix for a win. The age is there and the youth is there as well. It [the youth] is just not as visible because they probably didn’t get as much opportunities.”

Looking further into the future, Schmidt says he is still undecided as to extending his IRFU contract beyond 2017.

The Lions job remains up for grabs, though Schmidt again underlined that his family situation will shape everything he does in rugby.

I think for me, one of the things is that I’ve never, ever set a goal in my life,” said Schmidt. “I’ve never really tried to do anything other than just try to work away with an eye to the future in the development of players, but not certainly in the direction I go.

“The one thing I do sense a responsibility in is giving someone else, if it’s not me, an opportunity to get the same window that I got leading into a World Cup, and the same window I got to really enjoy the opportunity to work with such a good group of young men. Even if someone can pull out a player from an opposition team that’s more talented, our guy will just work harder. I think it’s a great group.

“The one thing that I would say is that it’s been an absolute honour to work with them and whatever happens beyond June 2017 will be dictated less by any rugby objectives I have or any appreciation I have of the role I’ve been quite honoured to have for the last two and a half years.”

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