‘The biggest game of his career’ is how Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt described Saturday’s Six Nations title decider against France in Paris.
Joe Schmidt sends his Ireland team into battle with a +49 scoring difference and will know exactly what his side need to do after England have played Italy in Rome earlier in the day.
“It’s got to be (the biggest game),” said Schmidt. “I’ve been lucky to be involved in some fantastic games where Ranfurly Shields have been won or the Bouclier de Brennus, the PRO12 trophy or a couple of Heineken Cups have all been incredibly exciting.
“I think they’d all pale next to a Six Nations trophy, but that trophy is still well away from us. But it’s a case of trying to work towards it.”
Ahead of travelling to France, Schmidt stated he was ‘nervous’ but ‘optimistic’ of Ireland’s chances against a French outfit that are difficult to quantify.
Philippe Saint-André has made four personnel changes to the side that narrowly defeated Scotland, and Schmidt expects that they will have enough continuity to try to put a dent in Ireland’s Championship hopes.
“You’re cautiously optimistic, because you’ve put yourself in a position where you can go to France and win a Six Nations title.
“Seven weeks ago, it’s something you would have dreamed of. Now we’re in that position and we want to make sure that we optimist every opportunity.”
Ireland have won just once in 42 years in Paris and led the French in their two most recent meetings before drawing the games. Last year Ireland led 13-3 at half-time before France fought back to draw 13-13 at the Aviva Stadium.
Two years ago in Paris, Ireland were 17-6 ahead at the break but again failed to score in the second half and drew 17-17 in the end.
More recently against the All Blacks and England, Schmidt watched Ireland build a lead before letting it slip through their fingers. A complete 80-minute performance will be required this weekend.
“With the world class type of player that the French have, with their ability to accelerate quickly, to link up in behind if there is a line break of any sort, we just have to be massively on our mettle,” admitted the New Zealander.
“When you mix in (Yoann) Huget and (Maxime) Medard back there, it’s the same sort of thing. If you try to double team (Mathieu) Bastareaud then you’ve got Gaël Fickou roaming just outside him.
“You might end up with Fickou getting a bit of space and he doesn’t need much, he’s got super acceleration and great footwork as well.”
While France take to the pitch with an outside chance of a Six Nations title of their own, a first Championship win since Ireland’s Grand Slam victory in 2009 in Brian O’Driscoll’s last game is plenty of motivation for Schmidt’s men.
“In 2009, the Grand Slam was extraordinary. You have to go back a fair way to find an opportunity of winning a Six Nations and having the destiny in your own hands in the final match.
“There’s a lot that’s going to be challenging for us. They’ve (France) had a few scrum issues. That’s probably some of the reaction that happened during the week.
“I think our scrum has gone really well, but we’ve got to be vigilant. If they get the opportunity to get an angle and come across us or take us down very low – with (Thomas) Domingo and Nicolas Mas being very capable of doing that – it could be a tough day at the office.”
While the excitement building for this opportunity to win silverware in Schmidt’s first season, there is also an element of pressure with Ireland’s fate in their own hands going into the final round of the Championship.
A big victory for England in Italy would lay down the gauntlet to Ireland if they are to win the Championship. Schmidt thrived under such pressure at Leinster, winning two Heineken Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and a PRO12 crown in three years.
“It’s just pressure. England, the way they played last week, could put a big score on Italy if Italy aren’t at their best. That’s not something we can control.
“What we control is our preparation and hopefully, we can control the bulk of our performance and not leave too much to chance.
“If we get the result in Paris and England manage to amass a massive points tally and we don’t quite get there, I’d still be incredibly proud of the team.
“To get four out of five (and lose) we’d be pretty devastated, but there’s a lot of guesswork, so we’ve tried to focus on what we really need to do.”