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Saturday 3 December 2016

Brent Pope: Schmidt needs new Wales plan

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during squad training Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during squad training Photo: Sportsfile

It only seems like yesterday that Ireland limped home from the World Cup, rejected. Suddenly the Six Nations is upon us again, and the one thing that is predictable about this tournament is that it is totally unpredictable.

Despite harsh criticism, largely from the Southern Hemisphere, that the Six Nations is stuck in the dark ages, don't expect players to be moving the ball from all quarters of the field just for the sake of it.

Last year's epic Six Nations finale when coaches finally gave the players freedom to unshackle themselves and play the game the way it should be played proved one thing, that teams have the necessary skill-set to play an expansive game.

It is just that the Six Nations is first and foremost about winning first.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt will know the importance of an opening home win when his team take on Wales.

A win would mean that Ireland could get off to the perfect start, build some momentum, and more importantly gain some much needed confidence after their World Cup hangover.

Conversely lose the first match at home, and the pressure builds, almost by the day.

The only problem for Ireland is that outspoken Welsh coach Warren Gatland will be thinking the very same thing.

Wales are many people's dark horses for the championship this year and possibly a Grand Slam. And the omens aren't good for Ireland as the last time Wales won a Grand Slam they defeated Ireland in the Aviva in their opening game.

Wales have a settled enough side compared to the others, a settled coach that has been at the helm longer than any other coach and at least they performed relatively well in the World Cup despite huge injury problems.

Alarmingly for Ireland is that Wales have been able to strengthen up where they were traditionally weak, namely in the tight-five with second row Alun Wynn Jones, an O'Connell like figure for Wales, his partner Luke Charteris improving by the year, and the highly-rated Samson Lee back to anchor the scrum, Wales suddenly have some much needed grunt up front.

Add in an experienced and dynamic loose forward trio, and unlike in other years Ireland with a slightly watered down panda division themselves may have to look at going around the Welsh pack rather than going through it.

Two years ago Ireland had one of the best mauling games in Europe, Schmidt then gave them the best kick and chase game in Europe but this year Schmidt will have to rethink his tactics again.

Schmidt will know that the Welsh handled the Irish kicking game pretty well in Cardiff last year, and that most teams in the Six Nations have worked out how to defend Ireland's maul.

Schmidt will need a new plan.

In truth most coaches have had little time to construct any team-plans since the World Cup, what with injuries, domestic duties and the disruptions to European games to contend with.

But in that regard Schmidt is perhaps better placed than the newbies of the coaching group namely France's Guy Noves and England's newly-adopted Japanese-Australian Eddie Jones.

There is no question regarding Jones' credentials, especially after delivering the surprise giant-killing victories in the World Cup with Japan.

France on the other hand resisted serious calls for a foreign international coach from outside the domestic net by appointing local hero Guy Noves, the man responsible for Toulouse's success in the European Cup albeit several years ago.

One must still question whether or not Noves is just too old or too traditional in his methods to turn France around even with ten uncapped players in his new-look squad.

But they have three home games and the best start possible despite a perceived weakness at No 10 and on the wings.

Jones has already courted some media controversy with his appointment of fiery Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley as his new captain.

Hartley is a serious risk, but it may prove to be an inspired choice as obviously Jones feels that he needs a Martin Johnston-type of motivator back in charge of England.

What will be interesting in week one is the style of play that all teams adopt, and will it be what everybody is hoping for?

Namely a more expansive, less attrition based 'crash-bash' game, or will it be another defensive 'win-at-all-cost' kicking game-plan that has seen the Six Nations needing serious reinvention.

The Irish coach has already hinted that with a long list of injuries to contend with, including Luke Fitzgerald this week, it may prove very difficult win three in-a-row.

He must decide where to play in-form Jarrod Payne, and the composition of his scrum and lineout given the notable absentees of the likes of Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahoney, Iain Henderson, Mike Ross and Cian Healy. It is a tough opener, and then with just six days turnaround until France.

The Irish Nos 9, 10, 12 combinations hold the key to victory, if Connor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw, in particular, play well then Ireland will win, if they don't they won't, it's that tight.

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