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Schmidt: Favourites tag hindering Ireland

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'Last year's results don't help you win anything this year... it puts a target on you'

Joe Schmidt has conceded Ireland have struggled to cope with the pressure of their stellar 2018. Ireland swept the board with a Six Nations Grand Slam last term and stunning victory over back-to-back world champions New Zealand in November.

All Blacks boss Steve Hansen installed Ireland as the world’s best team after Schmidt’s men saw off New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin – and then insisted the men in green could struggle under the weight of that tag.

Hansen has this week claimed Ireland have indeed failed to cope with that burden, and now Schmidt has accepted the sentiment with his men losing to England and labouring to wins in Scotland and Italy in this year’s Six Nations so far.

“Probably, the All Blacks are the only team who consistently stay at the top,” said Schmidt, ahead of Ireland hosting France in Dublin on Sunday. “You consider England, Six Nations Grand Slam, they get the Six Nations the following year, and the year after that they are fifth. How does that happen with most of the same personnel?

“It is one of those things that it is a little bit difficult. I know even talking to Franck Azema in Clermont, champions one year and 10th the next. How does that happen? It’s not apathy, it’s not overconfidence, I’m not sure how you might explain it. But there’s a real forward-thinking about the group.

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“So what’s happened last year is certainly last year. Because last year’s results don’t help you win anything this year. In fact, if anything, I think Steve is suggesting it hinders you winning things this year. It certainly puts a target on you.

“There’s no way that people come here and don’t want to beat a team that’s ranked where we are or a team that achieved what we did last year. But for us, it’s all about what we can achieve. And not even this year, it’s what we can achieve in just over 48 hours’ time.”

British and Irish Lions flanker Sean O’Brien has been omitted from Ireland’s squad for Sunday’s battle with Les Bleus. The 32-year-old Leinster star has paid a hefty price for a below-par showing in Ireland’s patchy 26-16 victory over Italy in Rome, with Josh van der Flier starting in his stead at openside.

Fit-again Garry Ringrose starts at outside centre, with Robbie Henshaw still battling a dead leg, while Iain Henderson returns after finger trouble at lock and CJ Stander at number eight. Munster star Stander suffered a nasty broken cheekbone in Ireland’s opening-weekend 32-20 loss to England in Dublin but has recovered quickly to step back into Schmidt’s team.

Joe Schmidt looked tense before the start in Rome, as if he could sense the struggle that was about to unfold for Ireland against Italy (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Schmidt confirmed O’Brien’s omission was on form, with the Ireland boss excited by van der Flier starting in the back row. “With Sean, Jack Conan was going to be given the opportunity against Scotland and he didn’t get that, so we wanted to give him the chance,” said Schmidt.

“Josh van der Flier hasn’t let us down at all. So it’s a perfect opportunity to put him back in there, he’s very much keen and ready to go. As tempted as we were with (lock) Tadhg Beirne, he’s just been a little bit sore this week coming back from injury.

“He was in the mix but he’s going to get the weekend off, to come back in refreshed and train next week. Ultan Dillane has played very well for us, so we wanted to reward his performance in Italy.”

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'Last year's results don't help you win anything this year... it puts a target on you'