The great debate: Should this be Rory Best’s last game as Ireland captain?
Veteran skipper has done a fine job, but it’s time to hand over reins, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
After Saturday's Six Nations conclusion we will come to a natural break in the World Cup cycle.
The pool seedings will be decided after the final round of the Championship, while the Lions will disappear off to New Zealand in June as Joe Schmidt replenishes his resources on the three-Test summer tour of the United States and Japan.
It will be seven months before the full Ireland team come together for the first of their November internationals and the build-up to the 2019 World Cup begins in earnest.
Nineteen full-Test matches remain for Schmidt to build the team that will take on the world in Japan and a decision on who should lead them will need to be made in the coming months.
Rory Best has been a fine Ireland captain who has led his team to historic firsts against South Africa and New Zealand, while carrying himself with class throughout his time in charge.
Unfortunately, the Armagh farmer is also 34 and when things get underway in Japan he'll be 37.
He has expressed his desire to continue playing for as long as possible and he remains the best hooker available to Schmidt, but it is time to pass the arm-band on to a player whose age profile suggests he'll be a central figure in 2019.
There will be some debate about who that figure is, but Peter O'Mahony is the most obvious man to take the job.
When Paul O'Connell was named skipper in 2013, his Munster colleague had been identified as his long-term successor. He led the summer tour of North America that summer, while he also led the team against Canada in November.
Had he not blown his cruciate against Argentina in 2015, he might have already assumed the role. His injury profile mitigates against him - as does his inability to get into the starting XV at present - but there is a growing sense that Ireland are missing the dogged flanker badly in this tournament and the more games he's left out of, the more important he becomes.
Although he shows little sign of slowing down, Best is not enjoying his finest Six Nations campaign. Ireland's line-out has struggled at significant moments and is the fourth most accurate in the competition.
On Friday night, he struggled to have a marked influence on the game although he was a Robbie Henshaw indiscretion away from scoring a pivotal try.
He remains Ireland's best hooker, but barring a drastic change in World Rugby laws in between, Connacht's Tom McCartney is one of four quality 'project' players who will come on stream for Joe Schmidt.
Along with Sean Cronin and the improving Niall Scannell and James Tracy, competition for the No 2 shirt is growing more fierce.
We have seen this Six Nations how removing the captaincy can offer players a new lease of life, à la Sam Warburton, while also how the leadership role can tie a coach to an under-performing player like Dylan Hartley.
This summer, Best is likely to tour New Zealand with the Lions which means Schmidt will likely have to name a stand-in for his own squad.
In the unlikely event that the Ulster star is not selected by Warren Gatland, it's difficult to see what purpose a place on the Irish tour would serve as the coach looks to broaden his net - unless Best just wants to stay sharp in case a call comes.
Either way, when they both return next season, it will be the right time to pass the baton.
Removing him would be a sign of weakness on coach's behalf, says David Kelly
Ireland remain the fourth best team in world rugby and this is still the same season in which a team - featuring 11 of those who started in defeat to Wales last Friday - downed the All Blacks for the first time in its history.
Rory Best led both teams but just because the most recent defeat featured him as captain, that is no reason to ditch him.
There are a multitude of reasons, numerous small details which are not knitting together as seamlessly as they did during November, behind Ireland's inability to compete for the title this season.
Pointing the finger of blame at the captain is far from the most relevant one.
His form has been diminished but he is not alone in that regard as everyone, from the extraordinarily consistent Jamie Heaslip, to the outstanding scrum-half in world rugby, Conor Murray, have experienced alarming dips in form at some stage this spring.
What Ireland need now is not a kneejerk reaction but even more togetherness as they seek to prove that Joe Schmidt's teachings remain as relevant as they did just a few short months ago when the country celebrated that famous Chicago success.
That November series also encapsulated a win against Australia in the most difficult of circumstances, while there had also been history made on the summer tour in South Africa, even if a largely understrength side had failed to close the deal.
Throughout it all, Best remained a consummate figure of calmness and composure and the suggestions that his careful, considered leadership should be despatched at this stage would represent a folly.
Anyone who questions his captaincy cannot do so in isolation; once the first whistle goes, the leadership becomes a collective and there is no logic in suggesting that it is the Ulsterman who single-handedly makes all the important calls. He must be guided by the principles of those around him, the leadership corps which is inclusive of primary goal-kicker Jonathan Sexton and the principal lineout organiser, Devin Toner, as well as relying on the team implementing their roles as precisely as they once did when compiling back-to-back Championship titles.
These roles have faltered badly in this campaign but the blame cannot be allowed to fall entirely upon the shoulders of the captain; that is much too facile an argument and allows others to wilfully escape attribution.
Best has brought an admirable calmness and composure to the position.
Conor Murray has expressed his extreme reluctance to captain any team and Peter O'Mahony's fitness and selection are always in question.
advisable Removing a captain from a position of weakness would not be advisable and Schmidt would be minded to call Declan Kidney to see how that worked for him.
That is not to say Best should remain until the next World Cup; at 37, it would reflect poorly on Irish rugby if he is not then challenged by a domestic rival. Or an imported one.
Indeed, Best's form is suffering such an undistinguished run that the Lions berth that once seemed certain to be his - at one stage, captaincy for Warren Gatland's team was also mooted - may now be under severe threat.
Ireland's now reduced Lions contingent offers her the opportunity to seriously lay down a platform for the first realistic World Cup winning assault in its history.
Best remains a crucial part of that planning process and, in the absence of available and viable alternatives, he will remain in the role beyond Saturday.