Alan Quinlan: Rising stars must be let off leash in Land of Rising Sun
Journey to 2019 World Cup semi-finals should start by blooding young talent on summer tour
The last time Gordon D'Arcy played a Six Nations match for Ireland, a floodlight failure at the Stade de France left him stranded in the middle of the pitch with the Six Nations trophy in his hands and a tiny spotlight shining on him.
To his left, meanwhile, was D'Arcy's successor, standing appropriately enough in his shadow. That was March 2014; 18 months and ten caps later, Robbie Henshaw stepped out of it, earning the accolades on the back of a superb Six Nations tournament in the spring, and a call-up to Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad for the 2015 World Cup in the autumn.
"This tournament is massive for every player, the top competition we all want to play in," Henshaw said on the eve of being named in Schmidt's squad. "And I just want to show Joe that I'm ready."
The point is that by September 2015, Henshaw was ready for international rugby; 18 months earlier, he wasn't, but as he spoke in subsequent years about how his early exposure to those international squads in 2014 helped accelerate his development, it got me thinking.
This upcoming tour to the United States and Japan is the time for the next Robbie Henshaw to emerge from the shadows and make their point to Schmidt. "Next time we're in Japan, for the 2019 World Cup, I want to be here," is the message they need to be delivering.
And there are no shortage of players capable of making that point. Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy have all had really good years with Leinster. And with Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander away with the Lions, this is their window of opportunity, as it could be for Jack O'Donoghue and Tommy O'Donnell.
Other possible bolters include James Ryan, the lock forward who captained Ireland's U20s last year, and who oozes class.
Fineen Wycherley, another second row, is only 19 and has only played a couple of games for Munster, and probably won't get the nod for this tour, but is a player that we should all keep an eye on in terms of what he may be able to produce in two years' time.
Why stop there? Jacob Stockdale is another young player I like the look of. Deceptively quick, powerfully built, athletic, and a brilliant runner with the ball, he may need to improve his positional sense and defensive game, but any time I have seen him come on for Ulster, he has excited me.
This summer is the chance then for more people to be excited, for Schmidt to check out if players can catapult themselves into contention for the next World Cup in 2019.
If all this seems a little unrealistic, given how so much can change over a 24-month period, then cast your thoughts back to Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam success and the role Cian Healy, Conor Murray, Mike Ross, Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien played in it.
Their collective contribution?
Yet by the time Australia were being defeated in the 2011 World Cup, they formed over a third of the team that saw that game through. And that is why we need to start thinking about the 2019 World Cup now.
Ultimately what Schmidt needs to develop is a situation where he has 24 or 25 players who he can look at in 2019 and say, "you are all good enough to start, no matter what the circumstances".
He didn't have that in Cardiff for the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina two years ago. Paul O'Connell was out. Likewise O'Brien, Sexton, Jared Payne and Peter O'Mahony. And Ireland paid the price.
As they did, again against Argentina, in the 2007 tournament. Earlier that summer, I toured that country but 15 key players stayed at home, and in so doing, a message was sent out. Those players, essentially, knew they were going to be starters when the tournament began, and the rest of us were playing for squad places.
You want competitiveness in your squad, and no individual who complacently thinks they are definitely going to the World Cup in two years' time.
So certain players, who have been internationals for a long time, need to maintain their form. Jamie Heaslip falls into this category. So too Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Devin Toner, Healy, Donnacha Ryan, Sean Cronin and, when he's fit again, Rob Kearney.
All of the above will be disappointed not to be selected for the Lions. And rightly so, as they're all very good players.
But those who head off on this summer's tour to the United States and Japan have got to make sure they don't travel with the attitude that "it's only Japan, the physical demands won't be as great as they can be against other countries".
Their job is firstly to bring their A-game, and secondly to help the development of other younger players - players like Niall Scannell, who had a fantastic year with Munster.
Can he kick on now and put pressure on Cronin and Rory Best between now and the World Cup? Can James Tracy?
Are there young players out there like Scannell and Tracy who can become one of the leaders of an inexperienced group going to Japan?
The reality is that while the USA and particularly Japan have improved, this remains a less pressurised tour than most, a tour where three comprehensive wins should be registered.
Never mind the fact that 11 players are away with the Lions. We're ranked fourth in the world. We need to back up our seeding.
And we need to examine those guys who have the potential to become first-choice players in two years' time.
That is why this tour definitely matters, not for now, but for a situation whereby if we are missing five players - like we were against Argentina - that we have proven back-up, guys who have been tested at international level and have shown they can do it.
In this context, I don't see the value of Heaslip travelling. Schmidt knows what he can offer and must also know the value of him having a summer off.
He needs to be thinking about 2019. The problem then will not be getting out of the group. The problem will come in the quarter-finals, something we have never managed to master in previously World Cups, unlike every other one of the top nine rugby playing nations: New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, France, Wales, Scotland and Argentina.
So the journey to the final four starts now.
Along that journey some senior players who are regulars now may fall victim to the ageing process. Best, Ryan, Kearney and Heaslip are clearly the most vulnerable to this scenario, yet I don't subscribe to the view they should be put out to grass just because they have more than 30 candles on their birthday cakes.
We don't have the playing pool to become so ruthless.
We are not New Zealand, who had the confidence to deal with international retirements, post-2015, of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu by rolling off the next generation of superstars off the conveyor belt.
We don't have ready-made superstars in Ireland. Instead we have to develop them. This tour to New Jersey and Japan gives Schmidt the chance to do so.