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Saturday 21 April 2018

Five tasks lying in Schmidt's in-tray

Priorities the coach must address in coming weeks

Luke Marshall in action against Scotland last season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile
Luke Marshall in action against Scotland last season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/ Sportsfile

JOE SCHMIDT will begin the high-wire act that is the life of an international coach knowing that detail, balance and accuracy is everything.

The first of these – detail – is one of the reasons why Schmidt will initially probably veer towards Leinster's contingent of players as the base for the launch of a new and improved era.

This would be the smart thing to do, not because they are better players, but because they better understand what is required from the first of their three years with Schmidt.

From there, the platform will be set. While the men from the three other provinces may start at a disadvantage, it should not be forgotten that Schmidt knows the weaknesses just as well as the strengths of the Leinster crew.

There is more scope for Munster, Ulster and Connacht players to impress Schmidt for the salient, simple reason that you never really know someone until you live with them. God knows, Camp Ireland will be stationed long enough out in Carton House for Schmidt to have a bullet-proof plan for what and who he needs by the conclusion of this season.

First, comes the month of November.

1. NOVEMBER

It is all very well to set targets. After all, there is nothing to compare with the winning glow of a post-match dressing-room.

But this is not a time for counting the Ws against the Ls. This is the hour of transition from an unimpressive eighth in the world rankings back towards Ireland's proper place.

They can start the process of rejuvenation by beating Samoa, the country ranked above them in seventh. This is their first and most attainable goal.

It would be short-sighted to place too heavy an emphasis on these three tests.

For example, Wales lost out in all four of these internationals to Argentina (26-12), Samoa (26-19), New Zealand (33-10) and Australia (14-12) last November before claiming the Six Nations Championship.

The point of difference most worthy of forensic review will be the game-plan and the evidence of the players' progression in putting it into practice through the three matches.

2. JONATHAN SEXTON

The way has been left clear for Sexton (pictured left) to start all three of Ireland's November internationals.

It looks like Racing Metro coach Laurent Labit took a sympathetic view of Schmidt's request that Sexton not see game time for the 14th time in 13 weeks on Saturday.

The Racing coach refused to introduce Sexton into action in the Top 14 on Saturday, although his highest-paid player was available from the bench as Racing fumbled their way to a 9-6 defeat at bottom club Biarritz.

Their kicker Benjamin Dambielle missed two late kicks for the draw or even a victory as Sexton clicked his heels on the sideline.

Many a fine mind has tried to figure out what goes on inside a Frenchman's head and come up clueless. Maybe Schmidt's charm stretches all the way to the banks of the Seine.

Sexton's rest cost Racing four points and the likelihood of Labit listening to Schmidt when the next clash arrives between club and country.

3. TWELVE

There is only one jersey that is truly up for a changing of the guard, that of Gordon D'Arcy's number 12 as Luke Marshall makes his move to come between the longest partnership in Ireland rugby, that of the Wexford man and Brian O'Driscoll.

Schmidt puts a heavy emphasis on 'knowing the game.' International rugby is a finishing school, not an education centre. That is why Kieron Marmion has lost out to Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss.

That is also why Schmidt will probably pair O'Driscoll and D'Arcy at the start of November. The landscape could be changed drastically by the end of the season when Stuart Olding, not Marshall, could be Ireland's secret weapon.

4. DAVE KEARNEY

The message of form over reputation has to be sent out and the best way of doing this is by showing faith in someone who has not been here before.

'Kearney The Younger' is not the thrill-a-touch wing in the mould of Simon Zebo or Craig Gilroy. He has shown incredible consistency this season, playing more than any other Leinster player and holding his standards high.

His security in the air, physicality on the ground and general minding of the house in the back three make him the one to show others there is an opportunity to breakthrough.

5. THE CAPTAINCY

Schmidt can make the politically-correct and, indeed, correct decision to go for the best captain, Paul O'Connell, someone from outside 'his' province.

The Limerick man's main motivation for Ireland is to make it to the 2015 World Cup. He is the outstanding candidate as a revered leader of men. That was seen on the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia.

However, there is a solid argument to be made that O'Connell should join Brian O'Driscoll as one unencumbered by responsibilities outside that of getting ready to play given his litany of injuries.

Removing O'Connell would leave the door open for the unbelievably consistent Jamie Heaslip to continue in the role or change the focus by plumping for Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton or Rob Kearney.

These four standout because they are racing certainties for selection, when fit and on-form. That's why Peter O'Mahony cannot be included. He will have his hands full coping with the storming challenge of Iain Henderson at blindside with Sean O'Brien and Heaslip nailed on.

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