Joe Schmidt looks to future for Ireland but will he be around for it?
Much-changed line-up has one eye on 2019 World Cup - but Kiwi might not be around to reap rewards
Published 17/06/2016 | 02:30
We are still none the wiser about whether Joe Schmidt will be in charge of Ireland beyond the end of next season, but there is a definite sense that he is preparing the ground for his end-game.
Frequently on this tour, the New Zealander has spoken about the disappointment of last year's World Cup and yesterday he re-iterated his desire that if Ireland suffer a number of injuries in Japan in 2019 they'll be better able to cope.
Hence, the risky strategy of making 10 changes to his match-day 23 for the second Test against South Africa tomorrow despite the series being on the line.
Previously, Schmidt might have gone again with the same side in an attempt to make history, but instead he is remaining true to his word and using his squad.
Gone is 36-year-old Mike Ross, the rock of the scrum for the entirety of the coach's time.
Ireland were unhappy with the suggestion that the Corkman has been dropped, but there was no place for the 60-times capped Leinster man in the match-day squad as Schmidt preferred a more dynamic duo of Tadhg Furlong, who starts, and Finlay Bealham on the bench.
The decision to hand Quinn Roux his first cap is a major risk given he last played six weeks ago and finished the season as Connacht's fourth-choice lock, but the South African brings size and scrummaging ability.
The selection of Stuart Olding is another nod to the future. He is the third Ulsterman to wear the No 12 shirt this season, but you get the sense that he is a favourite of the coach, who compared him favourably with Gordon D'Arcy yesterday.
And, while there is more fresh blood on the bench, where Tiernan O'Halloran and Sean Reidy can make their debuts, there is also the calming presence of Donnacha Ryan, who is given a chance ahead of Ultan Dillane, who may start next week.
"I firmly commit to the decisions that we made and the players that we've selected," Schmidt said. "I trust that they're going to go out and perform, but until you've actually got knee-deep in the water and then waded out a little bit deeper you're not quite sure whether you're going to be able to swim or not.
"They've been knee-deep for a while, had the opportunity to train and probably calibrate themselves within the system. Now they can calibrate themselves within the system in that really physical environment that trying to live with the Springboks is like.
"It's really important that, for a number of reasons, we find out. I know, and I fully accept the criticism of the World Cup. I'm not sure what people expected, losing our five most influential players the week before, and one of them two days before that quarter-final. I take nothing away from an outstanding Argentinian performance but I don't want to go there again.
"I don't want the team to be caught in a situation where we've got players who haven't been in that white-hot environment. And it's throwing out the opportunity, dovetailed with the challenge, (to find out) can they live there? If they can that's got to be good."
It was interesting to listen to Schmidt address the questions around his future after it emerged he has been contacted about taking over at the Highlanders in 2018.
When his contract expires at the end of next season, the New Zealander will have spent a decade in Europe, and a return home combined with a path to the All Blacks job could appeal to him.
Certainly, he has never spoken as strongly about the fact that his assistants are taking more responsibility, which follows IRFU performance director David Nucifora's assertion that the union will promote from within if Schmidt decides to leave.
That decision will be made this summer and it is clear that Schmidt has plenty of soul-searching to do. But he has committed to leaving Irish rugby in the strongest possible place and this tour is all about broadening the base for whoever is in charge in Japan.
"The Six Nations to me is what we live or die by," he said. "I'm still disappointed we finished third this year. We didn't feel like we were a million miles away, as much as it was probably described that way by some people.
"So for us (this tour) was just a case of trying look at the wider group that we had, and invest in them.
"I'm not sure that too many people had high expectations last week. They will probably believe, and it could well happen, that world rugby will rebalance itself and the Springboks - the powerhouse that they are - will re-establish that dominance they tend to have at Ellis Park and in this country on Saturday.
"So I think for us it does afford us the opportunity but it also issues a challenge to those individuals who've been given the opportunity this week."
For all that this is an opportunity for the new faces, Schmidt's expectation is that they perform.
"I'm really hoping that they will pleasantly surprise, just like the players who were probably undervalued a little bit last week," he said.
"They certainly showed their mettle and it's a huge challenge to those players who have come in to try to match what the players put into the game last week."