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Schmidt facing into his 'love/hate' relationship with the Six Nations

The Ireland boss is excited by the skills of the young forwards in his squad.

THE SUN IN Oliva Nova in southern Spain should help, but Joe Schmidt’s stress levels will be inching up this week regardless.

The Six Nations has long been looming in the Ireland coach’s thoughts and though the championship launch yesterday might have brought the rest of us up to speed, Schmidt has been working towards this competition since the November Tests.

Jacques Brunel, Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt, Eddie Jones, Conor O’Shea and Gregor Townsend Schmidt with his fellow Six Nations coaches. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Kiwi likes to have every possible box ticked, his preparation absolutely perfect in order to ensure that his players are, in turn, leaving no stone unturned.

But this year’s Six Nations opener provides Schmidt with a frustration in the build-up. France have a brand new head coach in Jacques Brunel, six uncapped players in their squad, and no guarantees around how they’re going to play.

Eddie Jones suggested yesterday that Ireland face a very “tricky” tie going to Paris first up, as he looked to add to the pressure, but Schmidt simply agreed with the England boss.

“One of the ways you like to try to future-proof what is coming up is to try to control as many variables as you can and predict as best you can, who and how and what they’re doing to do,” said Schmidt.

“That’s pretty difficult to do [with this French team]. As well as that, Eddie probably doesn’t want to face them first up because last year they almost beat them at Twickenham. That’s what they can do.

“You’ll get an enthusiastic response from the players. They’ve got a new opportunity from Jacques and they’re going to respond to that. They’re going to feel they owe the coaches their very best effort. They’ll owe 80,000 fans in there the same thing so it’s a complicated match for us. I think it’s one that has us pretty nervous.”

Any hint of a nervous edge may be no bad thing for Ireland after two years without a Six Nations title.

Schmidt and his players haven’t tasted trophy success since their back-to-back successes in 2014 and 2015, and though England are favourites for this year’s championship, the form of the Irish provinces and Ireland’s own impressive November series bode well.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt remains as driven as ever. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s always time to win the tournament,” said Schmidt. “We would have loved to have done it the last two years when we finished third and second. I think England, you talk about favourites, they were second behind us the two years previous to the two they’ve won.

“They have such a strength in depth that they make other people’s times to win the tournament few and far between at the moment. Wales don’t finish fifth very often, they won a couple of tournaments before that.

“They’ll be desperate to show they’re back at the top table. I just think it’s going to be incredibly tough.”

Schmidt says he has focused more on Ireland themselves than ever in the build-up to this Six Nations and was keen to point out that this is his youngest squad for the competition during his tenure.

Interestingly, he hinted that the skillset of the younger players in his squad – particularly in the pack – could lead to a slight shift in style for Ireland.

It is true that the likes of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and others are comfortable at handling and passing, so it will be fascinating to see where Ireland develop to.

“This Six Nations we have the youngest squad we have had and there is a degree of excitement in that,” said Schmidt. “It does not mean we change the way we play; it means some players will play slightly differently.

“We have got guys, you look at skill sets, at personnel, and you look at some of the players we had four years ago and you look at the new breed of forward that comes out of teams and their comfort level on the ball that allows them to play slightly differently.

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Tadhg Furlong Tadhg Furlong is among the forwards who can play. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Some players will have played more square and straight and now players will see a bit more space and that variety of play has always been there. I think you can go back to a whole lot of stats and how many passes are made and in the end, ours have not changed a whole lot since that first one where we were successful.

“The second tournament was successful as well but the context of games, in terms of the conditions you play in, can affect the way you end up playing.

“We are trying to get the best out of the individuals we have. Our individuals are different this year. I do believe there is a core, but there are a lot of guys who do not have that many caps. As I said, it is our youngest group and, therefore, it will be interesting to see how they develop the way they play.”

All in all, Schmidt is equal parts excited and equal parts stressed by the unknown obstacles that lie ahead.

Nothing changes in that regard.

“Every year, I look at it and go, ‘Wow, I think we’ve progressed a bit, worked hard and we are where we are and it’s not a bad place to be’.

“Then I look at our opponents and I go, ‘Wow, they look good. Wow, they look alright’.

“That’s the nature of it, I’m looking forward to it.

“I have a love/hate relationship with the Six Nations and I just like to be reasonably transparent about how I feel about it and how I perceive the players to be prepared for it.”

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