By Brendan Cole
In an exclusive interview broadcast on RTÉ Saturday Sport today, Joe Schmidt said that opening up selection is a key concern as Ireland move on from their RBS 6 Nations title win.
The Ireland head coach, who oversaw victories over Scotland, Wales, Italy and France and a narrow defeat against England to claim Ireland’s first title since 2009, admitted to feeling satisfied with a success he did not expect at the outset of the tournament.
Speaking exclusively to RTÉ Sport’s Michael Corcoran, he said: “It wasn’t something that I thought would happen to be honest. I thought it was going to be a work in progress and it definitely still is.”
Schmidt also reveals he now has a ‘concern’ about selection after a campaign that saw him use fewer players than he expected to as Ireland continued to perform strongly from week to week.
The summer tour of Argentina will be one opportunity to look at different players, though Schmidt admits it will be difficult to drop players who continue to perform.
He said: "We want to try to keep the selection open and recalibrate what we are looking and then go again for Argentina.
"We had quite a small group that started, with just 18 starters through the Six Nations and 29 used in all. We want to make sure that we are giving opportunity as much as possible. But at the same time, if you give someone a jersey and they do what is required of them, it is pretty hard not to stick with them.”
Ireland have just 14 matches – 10 Tests and four warm-up matches - between now and the next Rugby World Cup, with a trip to Argentina this summer, a November series, the next Six Nations and four pre-RWC 2015 warm-up matches on the schedule.
The Heineken Cup is also a key proving ground for those looking to claim Ireland caps.
Schmidt commented: “We are going to some really high quality rugby in the [Heineken Cup] quarter-finals in two weeks’ time and that will be a good opportunity to gauge progress for players that didn’t get the game time that we anticipated we might be able to spread across a wider group during the Six Nations.”
But defending the Six Nations will be a major priority, and Schmidt does not see the Championship as a time to experiment.
He added: "For me personally, while there is no way you would ever disregard the World Cup; and it Is the pinnacle, the Six Nations is a massive tournament for us. That is the Championship that we play in annually and that you want to win in Europe.
"Those five [Six Nations] Test matches next year are going to be something that we will really go out try to be as competitive as we can be. So if you are looking for windows, Argentina and the November series next season are the times we might look to have a look at a few guys because we are not going to get any other opportunity."
The Ireland head coach also hailed the impact of the bench, crediting substitutes with scoring key tries that led to Ireland’s tournament win on points difference.
He said: "It was one of the learnings that we got from the All Blacks Test match……we have to be good enough across 23 players to make sure that we are able to add value rather than plug holes with our bench. To be fair to the lads that came on, there was always value added from the group."
Michael Corcoran's interview with Joe Schmidt will play out on Saturday Sport later today - in it, the Ireland coach talks about the crucial moments in RBS 6 Nations campaign, Ireland's nail-biting finish against France and Steve Walsh's decision to refer the crucial decision back to the TMO after it had been made and much more.
The full interview will also be available on the RTÉ.ie/sport website after 5pm.