Joe Schmidt praises defensive improvements ahead of Six Nations

The Ireland head coach was speaking to Off The Ball's Dave McIntyre

Joe Schmidt, Ireland, Six Nations

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie 

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt says his side's defensive improvement over the past year has given him a good platform heading into the 2017 Six Nations Championship.

Ireland get their campaign underway with a trip to Scotland and come off the back of a year in which they picked up victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

The defence of their Six Nations crown last year saw them struggle to cope with a resurgent England side and endure a bruising away tie to France.

However, the tail end of 2016 saw them produce a run of good form and wins over Southern Hemisphere opposition, Schmidt says, was down to work they've done in defence.

"Andy Farrell, since he's come in, has done a wonderful job," he said. "He's had less time to influence the group and he's still building that defensive system and the priority for every player in that system.

"We've done some fantastic defensive stuff. Holding Australia out was phenomenal. Kieran Marmion on the wing and Joey Carbery at full-back, Simon Zebo said it was like being out in the crèche at the back. 

"There are some players who are further ahead and who have a better understanding. You always want everyone to have the same understanding so everyone is up to speed as much as you can. You'll always hit the odd speed bump, so it shows we've made real progress."

Ireland captain Rory Best [left] and head coach Joe Schmidt [right] stand next to the Six Nations trophy ahead of the beginning of the championship on February 4. Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie 

Injuries

Injuries impacted greatly on the team coming out of the 2015 World Cup and caused them to readjust heading into their championship defence. The Kiwi admitted he was incredibly proud of his players who fought through the adversity.

"Probably starting the Six Nations this time last year we were coming off a disappointing finish to the World Cup. Through the pool stages I really felt we were gathering momentum.

"But we did struggle once we had lost a lot of players. I was incredibly proud of the French performance. I still think that this has all registered as a big highlight for me since I've been in the job.

"With the injuries we coped with that day - when you lose your captain [Paul O'Connell] before half-time and Johnny [Sexton] comes off early, Peter O'Mahony's injury, we'd already lost Jared Payne - I thought the players did incredibly well to come through and win the game. They found a way and an incredibly positive manner."

While he has spent the last few weeks learning from previous campaigns, Schmidt now looks forward to the nine "toughest weeks of the year".

"I'm excited about the toughest nine weeks. If you don't get excited about this, you shouldn't be in the job. I can't wait to get started.

"But I don't want it to come at the same time. I know the expectation and the pressure, so you don't want to let people down. It's paradoxical in that it's the most enthusiastic as you can be and the most terrified that you don't quite deliver on the expectations you have of yourself as a team and on the expectations the team have on themselves." 

Ireland visit Murrayfield on Saturday 4.