Joe Schmidt was under no illusions as he surveyed the fast-approaching 2018 Six Nations Championship.
As encouraging as Ireland’s Guinness Series of Test matches has been this month, underlined by a jump in yesterday’s World Rugby rankings from fourth to third, the head coach is only too aware that much tougher assignments lie around the corner than the ones just negotiated.
It has undoubtedly been a good November for Ireland, with comfortable victories in successive weeks over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina achieved while introducing four debutants and adding valuable experience to the players capped for the first time on the summer tour to the United States and Japan.
Schmidt has got his reward in that endeavour as his contingent of less experienced players who excelled against the Eagles and Brave Blossoms in June have eagerly made the most of the opportunities presented them against three teams ranked in the top 10.
Of his 38-man squad, 16 went into the autumn Tests with four caps or less and have, for the most part, enhanced their hopes of further recognition.
Not only that but the management has also successfully re-integrated a battalion of British & Irish Lions in seamless fashion at the first opportunity, something that has often taken much longer due to the arduous nature of those tours and their lingering effects.
Continuity has been maintained to extend a winning streak which began with a roaring victory over England in Dublin at the end of the last Six Nations in March across seven games into the 2018 championship.
Consistency across 80 minutes is the next target for despite those wins at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland exposed a worrying tendency to let opposing teams back into games they had worked so hard to overcome in first halves.
Three late tries from Argentina ended the Guinness Series on an anti-climactic note from an Irish point of view but will serve to allow Schmidt to remind his players that the upcoming Six Nations will not afford them such luxuries.
Just a cursory glance around the rugby capitals of Europe on Saturday would have both whetted the appetite for the battles to come in February and March and also and reined in any celebrations of the past month’s achievements.
In Edinburgh, ragged Australia, undermanned following the red card issued to Sekope Kepu before the break and a late yellow card for Kurtley Beale, were being put to the sword by Gregor Townsend’s resurgent Scotland, the Wallabies’ record 53-24 loss to the Scots helping to lift Ireland in the rankings.
While in London, the Twickenham faithful were rewarded by another remorseless victory by Eddie Jones’ England, seven-try slayers of Samoa for win number 22 in 23 since the Aussie took control after the World Cup.
A trip to London to bring down the curtain on the campaign on St Patrick’s Day will not be for the faint-hearted, particularly against a vengeful home side denied a Grand Slam in Dublin for that lone defeat.
And then to Paris, Ireland’s next destination on February 2, and where the French were at their most infuriating at Racing 92s impressive new U Arena. Having shown glimpses of their brilliance in defeat to New Zealand, then crumbling to ailing Springboks, Les Bleus were held to a draw by Japan at the weekend to complete a winless November, with Guy Noves’ team now not having tasted victory since the last day of the Six Nations and that controversial win they scraped against Wales.
Schmidt has repeatedly insisted that this Six Nations, under the temporary title sponsorship of Natwest, after outgoing backer and parent company RBS stepped into the breach, will not be the time for further experimentation, on Saturday evening even going as far to say the World Cup was a “Johnny come lately” tournament compared to the Northern Hemisphere’s crown jewel, adding: “The Six Nations is our tournament.
“There’s teams in the Six Nations that you’re obliged to go as hard as you can, because you still need your top selection, to keep building their fluidity together. And you need to keep building confidence.”
Schmidt said he took risks in selection over the last three names, not least naming a side with a collective 188 caps to face the powerful Fijians, but other changes were forced, such as Chris Farrell’s inclusion against Argentina following a hamstring scare for Robbie Henshaw. That will be the nature of any nod to inexperience over these next five, combative Six Nations games – necessity rather than gamble.
The Ireland boss raised the prospect that Jamie Heaslip and Jared Payne, two of his staunchest on-field lieutenants, are ready to return from long-term spells on the sidelines while also making reference to the Ulster wings he omitted from his November squad, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy, a statement which should also incentivise the likes of overlooked Connacht prop Finlay Bealham, Munster centre Rory Scannell, and Leinster hooker Sean Cronin.
Nor has he shut the door on new blood between now and the next World Cup, which kicks off 22 months from now in Japan. With a top-level, three-Test summer tour to Australia next summer, the opportunities for pre-World Cup auditions, frontline injuries aside, are likely to be limited to next November’s internationals, although not the returning All Blacks, rather the still-to-be designated tier-two opponents and possibly repeat visitors Argentina.
This month, Schmidt has namechecked wings Alex Wootton and Barry Daly, both uncapped, and the once-capped Niyi Adeolokun as unlucky to have missed out and added that their lack of minutes in camp will not count against them for future squads even, as was put to him on Saturday, we are already halfway to the next World Cup.
“There’s always licence if someone is performing really well,” Schmidt said. “I wouldn’t discard anyone at this stage.”
By Simon Lewis
Rugby and Golf Correspondent Irish Examiner