Schmidt preparing for first 'final'

Date published: February 1 2014

Joe Schmidt was preparing himself for “five finals” ahead of the Test with Scotland – his first Six Nations game in charge of Ireland.

Joe Schmidt was preparing himself for “five finals” ahead of his first Six Nations Test in charge of Ireland, against Scotland in Dublin on Sunday.

The New Zealand-born former Leinster boss was appointed as Declan Kidney's successor last year, and lost two of three November Tests, going down 15-32 to Australia, before agonisingly losing 22-24 to the world champion All Blacks with the last kick of an epic game.

Schmidt could have made history by leading his adopted nation to its first ever victory over his homeland in over a century of trying, but Ireland couldn't back up a stunning first 40 minutes and ultimately came up short once more.

But he knows there will be far less sympathy if Ireland slip up in the Six Nations, a tournament he's enjoyed only as a spectator before now.

“I'm still learning in this job,” Schmidt said.

“It (the Six Nations) is a competition of five games but it's five finals and that probably makes it slightly different to the Autumn where we did feel maybe we had to have a look at a few guys.

“Whereas this is the Six Nations, this is the major tournament that we play and we can't afford to lose our first game.

“It's pivotal for us to get a good start. You only get one shot at your first game and you've got to give it your best shot.”

Of the XV that started against New Zealand, Schmidt is without Tommy Bowe and Sean O'Brien through injury.

Schmidt also caused some mild surprise by deciding Gordon D'Arcy's stomach illness at the start of this week was sufficient reason for him to be left out, even though the veteran midfielder was one of the best players on the pitch against New Zealand.

D'Arcy has been replaced at inside centre by Ulster's Luke Marshall, one of four players from the northern province to make the starting line-up, a reflection of their unbeaten status in this season's European Cup.

Much of the rest of the team picks itself, with star centre Brian O'Driscoll set for a landmark 129th cap that will see him overtake retired outside-half Ronan O'Gara as Ireland's most-capped player.

This is also O'Driscoll's final season of rugby before retirement, and he's expressed his determination to 'empty the tank' in the pursuit of only a second Championship title in 14 attempts.

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell agreed with O'Driscoll's assertion that the country's 'golden generation', so successful at club level, have underachieved in the Test arena.

But the experienced lock said the present side might be the most talented group of Ireland players he's been involved with.

“We have an excellent squad that is equally good and possibly better (than the Grand Slam winning side of 2009,” O'Connell claimed.

“But until we go on and do something you can't say that.

“We need all the good things we did against New Zealand in terms of our accuracy and detail, but that doggedness that was there in 2009 needs to be there as well.”

Indeed it was that very quality of grim determination that did so much to see Scotland to an upset 12-8 win in last year's corresponding clash with the Irish at Murrayfield.

But Scotland coach Scott Johnson wants his side to expand their game.

And with the return of full-back Stuart Hogg, who missed the November Tests with a wrist injury, in a back three also featuring New Zealand-born wing Sean Maitland and veteran flyer Sean Lamont, Johnson is convinced his side can pose a real attacking threat at Lansdowne Road.

“We can go the length with that back three,” said Johnson.

“For a seasoned campaigner Sean Lamont has some legs still. His form over the last 24 months for us has been outstanding,” the Australian added.

“Like something in my wine cabinet he's certainly getting better with age.”