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Schmidt begins prep for what will be his toughest Six Nations test yet

The opposition looks strong, there’s no Paul O’Connell and Ireland must travel to London and Paris.

JOE SCHMIDT’S IRELAND squad gather at Carton House today to turn their attention towards what is likely to be their toughest Six Nations campaign yet under the Kiwi.

Joe Schmidt dejected after the game Ireland's most recent Test match ended in dejection. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The head coach has summoned a 35-man group to the Maynooth base this week – with Connacht’s Finlay Bealham replacing the repeatedly unlucky Marty Moore – to begin preparations for a demanding opening tie at home against Wales.

Sunday 7 February is just around the corner and the quality of training over the next fortnight will be of paramount importance to Schmidt, who remains as strong in his belief of the value of being better prepared than the opposition as he has always been.

The Kiwi head coach will continue to drive the game-by-game focus that has become a religion for his Ireland players and a scourge to those tasked with speaking to them regularly, but the overall picture for this Six Nations speaks of his biggest challenge in this competition since taking over.

Clearly the World Cup disappointment will linger in the backs of minds, but Ireland have moved on collectively and focused anew on the task ahead. Schmidt has won back-to-back Six Nations campaigns, but a third consecutive title would be his greatest achievement.

First, and perhaps foremost, among the negatives for Schmidt is the loss of Paul O’Connell. There is no need to go into depth on what he brought to this Ireland team other than to say he was a leader and second row of historic and world-class standing.

Rory Best was a popular choice as O’Connell’s replacement and has a core of experienced men in the leadership around him, but there is absolutely no doubt that Ireland have been weakened in this department by the retirement of the Toulon lock.

As concerning is the departure of Ireland’s best forward – even when leadership is not considered – and the second row has been a worry for Schmidt, particularly after injury to Iain Henderson. Devin Toner will be paired with either Mike McCarthy or Donnacha Ryan, and while all three of those players are excellent, none of them are O’Connell.

Looking back on what has been lost is, of course, of no value to Ireland at present, but O’Connell’s absence must be taken into account when previewing this campaign and Ireland’s chance of winning a third title in a row.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has an important call to make at lock. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Up against Alun Wyn Jones and possibly Luke Charteris on the opening weekend, Ireland’s second row has a major task on its hands. Without Mike Ross and Marty Moore, Tadhg Furlong and Nathan White must also step up at tighthead.

There will have been major relief on Schmidt’s part that Johnny Sexton passed his first two HIAs in recent days – primarily on a personal level, but also in terms of having his first-choice out-half and tactical leader available.

That said, the form of Paddy Jackson has been one of the bright points of the Irish rugby season and he now provides a challenge to Sexton’s position.

Elsewhere, there are personnel questions for Schmidt to answer as he looks to ensure his team keeps improving.

CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey are two of the form players in this country; do they fit into the XV? Is Jared Payne best suited to the fullback position, allowing Robbie Henshaw to fill the 13 shirt he has seemed destined for? Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Simon Zebo – who are the wings?

Any changes in personnel may give us hints as to a change in attacking approach from Schmidt’s Ireland, a matter which may be vital this season.

There is unlikely to be a huge shift in the Kiwi’s tactics, but a broadening of the attacking game, greater freedom to offload, new shapes in phase play and a renewed focus on set-piece strike moves are to be expected.

Of course, Schmidt will be keeping a close eye on the opposition, as is his wont. This is where the 2016 Six Nations gets even more interesting.

England, runners up for the last four years, have a new head coach in the vastly experienced and confident Eddie Jones. Even beyond any shift in style, the Australian’s arrival should bring about an upturn in individual performances and motivation.

England Press Conference - Pennyhill Park Jones is an interesting addition to the Six Nations. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Jones has named a dynamic, refreshed squad for this championship, as well as making a controversial and energetic choice of captain in Dylan Hartley. England rapidly turn into a free-flowing attacking force is unlikely, but Jones, Steve Borthwick, Ian Peel and Paul Gustard are sure to improve their set-piece and defence.

England will be even harder to beat than they were under Stuart Lancaster.

Wales are joint second favourites alongside Ireland in many places and it’s not difficult to see why. Their injury travails at the World Cup were freakish and they still managed to emerge from the difficult Pool A and give South Africa a scare in the quarter-finals.

Their defensive resilience is among the best in the international game and though there are still some doubts about their attack, Warren Gatland’s side have belief. The former Ireland head coach is highly desirous of retaining the Lions job for 2017, so expect a few more comments on Schmidt’s style of play if the Welsh win in Dublin.

Scotland appear to be the rising force of the championship under Vern Cotter after their run to the World Cup quarter-finals, where they were infamously denied by Craig Joubert with a late, late penalty decision in Australia’s favour.

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Cotter’s ambitious game plan has been embraced by Scotland’s players, they have a sense of momentum on their side and the addition of Richie Gray to the coaching staff as a breakdown specialist is a smart move. He has helped to make South Africa a consistent force in that department in recent seasons.

France under new boss Guy Novès are difficult to make presumptions about. The Toulouse legend has reinvigorated his squad with the addition of uncapped, in-form players but there remains a feeling that the 61-year-old is a little too old school.

His Toulouse sides in recent years came across as having fallen behind the trends and realities of modern professional rugby, although new attack coach Jeff Dubois [who helped Stade Français to the Top 14 last season] should help in that regard.

Novès was generally stand-offish with his players at Toulouse, friendly but rarely willing to engage on a deeper level. If his style of motivation can work at Test level – where the window of preparation is so short – then there is no doubt France are physically capable of beating anyone.

France Rugby Noves has incredible experience at club level. Source: AP/Press Association Images

If Novès doesn’t adapt swiftly to what is a different ball game, then the sad decline of les Bleus in recent years will continue. Ireland would rather not have another title contender to deal with, but for the good of the Six Nations we must hope that Novès is a saviour.

More encouragingly for Ireland, Italy look in worse shape than they have done for some time. Zebre have picked up a handful of Pro12 wins this season, but Treviso are in a real mess, with Kieran Crowley expected to pick up the pieces next season.

In terms of the Six Nations ahead of us, the squad named by Jacques Brunel looks very weak in comparison to what the other five competitors have announced. If Conor O’Shea is to take over this summer, he has a massive job on his hands.

England and France away has never been viewed as an especially positive calendar for Ireland in the Six Nations, and a defeat to Wales on the opening day would certainly compound that difficulty.

Let’s take it game by game, Schmidt will tell his players again. If they can do that, introduce an energetic dose of new blood, broaden the attacking game slightly, compensate for the loss of O’Connell and begin with a win, the picture will look rosy.

Not too much to ask is it? Schmidt has two Six Nations titles already, but a third this season would be his biggest achievement yet.

- First published 5.51pm; this article was updated at 6.57pm to correct the number of players summoned to Carton House as part of Ireland’s squad from 30 to 35.

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Murray Kinsella

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