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eye on the prize

'It was a bit glum' after Argentina, but pack leaders will make Ireland a force in Six Nations

Experiments will be put on hold when Ireland regroup for an assault on the Six Nations.

“CAN I THINK about that tomorrow?”

Joe Schmidt wasn’t fooling anyone with his initial effort to side-step a question about the Six Nations.

He has thought his way through it already, in detail. And given the effusive praise he had for the competition in the immediate aftermath of the clean sweep through November, he is intent on throwing everything at it.

“I think the Six Nations is a phenomenal tournament, and I would pay it the utmost respect — the World Cup is really Jonny-come-lately in regard to that. The Six Nations is our tournament.”

He added: ”it has been in the back of my mind because we know how tough that’s going to be.”

It was a month for planning ahead after all, with Schmidt making extra effort to create depth and instil experience and assurance across the full width of his squad.

However, when it comes to inquire about what makes him confident his team can perform and achieve through February and March, the majority of Schmidt’s answers boast Lions credentials from either 2013 or the summer just passed.

“The scrum has gone really well, again Greg Feek does a super job for us and Tadhg Furlong continues to be a really strong character for us, not just in the scrum, but around the pitch as well.

Cian Healy celebrates a try that was later disallowed Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“Cian Healy was incredibly dynamic coming off the bench again Fiji and was very, very strong tonight, not as visible, but you don’t get to as visible when you play the Argentinians, it is a little bit suffocating trying to attack against them sometimes because they are very connected and bring a real intensity to their defence.”

It’s fair to say Schmidt is pleased with his pack, and the slaps on the back continue with with Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander all singled out by the head coach.

The depth is encouraging, and in some cases very exciting, but Ireland’s chances of reclaiming the Six Nations title will live and die by the performances and availability of the recognised reliables. The mood down under the Aviva Stadium was a little bit subdued and confused post-match because a nine-point winning margin could easily have been 23 had Rory Best’s crunching late tackle on the Puma try-line been converted into a try rather than a brave breakaway by the visitors from behind their own posts.

“I know it is a little bit paradoxical to say I am delighted with the Guinness Series and frustrated by a few things we didn’t get right.

“It is always a little bit like that when you try and strive to be better every time and there are bits that aren’t quite right you get frustrated.

It was a little bit glum in the coaches box at the finish just because we conceded that try at the end and even though we thought we might get one.”

Schmidt is acutely aware that November form doesn’t count for much in the cold light of the sport’s oldest Championship, certainly not for France who will represent a firm, if otherwise unimpressive, first hurdle for Schmidt’s men in Paris.

“I remember a few years ago (France) had a fantastic autumn series and then didn’t perform in the Six Nations. Then other times they go to a World Cup, they lose to Tonga, they almost lose to (14-man Wales) then nearly beat New Zealand in the final.

New Zealand All Blacks Aaron Smith fronts up tp France’s Raphael Chaume Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“That’s what you’re up against because when they turn up they are so tough. That’s been our experience anyway.”

That’s a roundabout way of saying ‘you never know which France are going to show up’. There was often wisdom in that cliche, but of late Guy Noves’ team has been displaying far more of the rough than the smooth. So, while the last encounter on French soil was a defeat for Ireland, it was Schmidt’s only loss to Les Bleus and Ireland ought to be confident of winning their away opener before getting a chance to build momentum on home soil with matches against Italy, Wales and then the superb Scotland before another showdown with England in Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.

We can’t wait either, Joe.

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