‘We’re under the hammer’ – Big selection calls for Ireland before France test

JOE SCHMIDT’S HOPES that the Ireland U20s would provide his team with stiff opposition at yesterday’s opening training session in Monaghan certainly materialised.

Nigel Carolan’s charges were up for the task, with an enjoyable bout of pushing and shoving breaking out between the forwards during lineout and maul practice.

For the second time this season, Peter O’Mahony was seen kissing a fellow rugby player afterwards, with himself and U20s hooker Tadhg McElroy making up to a chorus of cheering and good-natured slagging from both squads in the middle of the pitch.

Joe Schmidt meets some of the fans in Monaghan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was a high-tempo, if not error-free, session from Ireland in front of an impressive crowd of around 3,000 people in Monaghan RFC, with the well-organised junior club clearly embracing their opportunity to get up close to the stars.

That O’Mahony – back after a hamstring strain – was among the 19 fully-fit Ireland players underlines that Schmidt will have some interesting selection decisions to make ahead of the next Six Nations clash with France on 25 February in Dublin.

Andrew Trimble and Iain Henderson were both back in full training too, while Schmidt insisted that out-half Johnny Sexton and fullback Rob Kearney are both hitting their markers as they recover from respective calf and bicep injuries.

All in all, Schmidt is expecting to have some close selection calls for the France clash.

“Back three of the scrum and back three of the pitch,” said Schmidt when asked about O’Mahony’s return to fitness adding to the back row competition, even if last night’s shoulder injury for Leinster man Josh van der Flier is a concern.

“Andrew Trimble was great in November, has been really good for us when he has been available and we’ve got some other guys who have chipped in.

“Gilly [Craig Gilroy] off the bench, Andrew Conway has gone really well, I think Tommy Bowe with a bit more game time – he hasn’t actually played many games – he’ll get closer and closer to where we need him to be, because two years ago I think he was really pivotal in us winning the championship.

“We’ve got a few selection headaches and that’s exactly what you need. Even in the front row and second row, there are a few decisions to be made and part of that is we’ll grab the footage from today and just see how guys are going.”

Simon Zebo with Saorise Traynor and Daragh Gorman. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Monaghan’s rugby population might have enjoyed the chance to see Ireland’s players in the flesh, but watching Schmidt in action is also an interesting proposition.

The Ireland head coach questions and cajoles, sending players who infringe on punishment runs back to the tryline, pushing the players’ fitness by cutting down any chances of breaks between passages of play in the 15-on-15 portion of sessions, and reprimanding anyone who misses their ‘barrel’ at the breakdown.

While the action was flowing on the main pitch, Johnny Sexton cut a lonely figure out on the back pitch, working through his rehab, involving change-of-direction drills and some encouraging high-speed running.

“He just wants to play,” said Schmidt of the 31-year-old out-half. “He’s not happy when he’s not playing. That’s what you want from a player. Players want to play, they want to be available. They want to be in the middle and none more so than Johnny.

“It’s about sometimes tempering his expectations of himself and saying, ‘Well, Johnny, we’ve got these clear markers for you and this is the physical feedback. We know how you feel, we know what your intentions are, and they are admirable, but we want to make sure we’ve ticked all the boxes here.’

“That’s partly because we want to look after Johnny’s longevity and also his short-term availability, because we don’t want that accumulation of injuries.

“As soon as you get one injury, you can get a little bit of compensation for that leg and, suddenly, you get a little bit of trouble in this leg.”

That said, Schmidt stressed that the out-half is on track to make a recovery in time to face France, barring any setbacks. The Ireland head coach also said, once again, that Paddy Jackson is “growing into the leader we need” as he gets more exposure.

Johnny Sexton trains alone. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Schmidt will have important decisions to make around individuals before the meeting with France, he is as focused on collective efforts as ever.

While the opening-round defeat to Scotland will rankle for some time, there were positive signs in that game and the facile win over Italy of the increased variety Ireland are bringing to their attack.

The growing number of passes by forwards has been noticeable in recent times and Schmidt feels it comes down to players feeling more comfortable playing with each other.

“One of the things about international rugby that probably frustrates me the most is you don’t get those longer windows with players so what they turn up as a skillset is what you have,” said Schmidt.

“If they are not comfortable doing things, then it is very hard to make them comfortable when you get together on a Sunday evening, have a light training on a Monday, train Tuesday and Thursday, and you play on Saturday.

“You’re not suddenly going to have a massive influence on how someone plays the game. You’re trying to influence a bit of that, but also influence how comfortable they are with other players because if you are going to make a pass, someone has to be in a good position to receive it, someone has to be comfortable taking a pass and probably adapting to the space and time they need, so all those elements come into it.

“I think that probably since the World Cup, the forwards have made more passes and that was probably the window that we had to start developing it.

“Now, some of that was developed with combinations that then unfortunately came undone during the World Cup. With the combinations, there’s a little bit of consistency now.

Schmidt is looking towards France next weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think those combinations, they allow you to start to play with, I suppose, a little bit more capacity for varying what you’re doing.”

Up against the powerful defenders in Guy Novès’ French team, that ability to bring variety could be essential for Ireland.

Their one-out phases will remain a cornerstone in the opposition 22, but tip-on passes and second-wave attacks can certainly expose any disorganisation or laziness in the French defence.

Ireland will need to peak next Saturday, as they now face what essentially amounts to knock-out rugby in the remaining three rounds of this Six Nations.

A quarter-final against France, a semi-final in Cardiff and a potential final against the English in Dublin. Bring it on.

“The more experiences you get in that domain, I suppose, the greater your ability to cope on those situations,” said Schmidt. “We know we are under the hammer. How the players respond when they are under the hammer, we will find out a little bit I guess.

“We’re not happy to be where we are, but we’re excited about the challenge we’ve got.”

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