If Schmidt decides to leave, we're ready, insists Nucifora
Joe Schmidt's future remains in his own hands, but the IRFU are preparing the ground for his exit just in case.
Performance director David Nucifora said that the union will promote from within in the event the New Zealander chooses to leave at the end of his current deal in 2017, with Andy Farrell, Pat Lam, Rassie Erasmus and Les Kiss the leading contenders to take over in that event.
The ball is firmly in Schmidt's court, however, and Nucifora says the head coach is under no pressure to make a decision on his future until 2019.
With the rest of the national team coaching ticket signed up until after the 2019 World Cup, the union's desire is for Schmidt to lead them to Japan, but he has family considerations to think of.
On Monday, he indicated that he had moved closer to a decision, having previously committed to telling Nucifora of his intentions in July.
The performance director has a succession plan in place just in case and anticipates that a replacement would come from within with Andy Farrell, Pat Lam, Les Kiss and Rassie Erasmus all viable contenders.
"Will he tell me in July if he's staying? He might, he doesn't have to," Nucifora said. "We're speaking on an ongoing basis, if he chooses to extend (his contract) he can do that any time between now and towards the Six Nations of next year.
"Do we have a plan in place if he decided to leave? Yes we do. We are gradually building a fairly strong group of coaches in the country and we'd have a number of alternatives to look at if we had to move it forward.
"Other than Les Kiss moving into Ulster we've managed to sign all of our national coaches on to longer-term contracts post the World Cup, we've brought Andy Farrell into the mix... I feel we have a strong talent pool of coaches that we're building and that puts us in a good position.
"Do we want Joe to stay? Absolutely, we'd like him to stay and commit right through until 2019; he's got an unusual set of circumstances that we've spoken about before and we're just happy and confident to work with him on those and he'll do the right thing and let us know as soon as he's got a clear indication in his own head. I don't think we're going to have to be shopping outside of the group we've got at the moment within this country to find someone who's going to be able to step up to the plate."
Schmidt is a contender to lead the Lions to his homeland next summer but Nucifora says that would only be allowed to happen if he was staying with Ireland. He would need to be released for next season's Six Nations and, potentially, the November series with Farrell likely to stand in.
"If Joe decides to take on the Lions job, he will already have made the decision to stay on until 2019, that will automatically be in place," he said. "If he decides that he doesn't want to do the Lions and he needs to leave, we will be looking for a successor.
"If he does take the job, if he does get offered the Lions job, we'll come up with a short-term solution for the period he wouldn't be eligible to coach."
Although he conceded that a third-place finish in this year's Six Nations was disappointing, Nucifora said there were mitigating factors.
"It was a tough Six Nations, would we have liked to have finished higher? Absolutely," he said. "If you hark back on the players that were available and the carnage that came out of the World Cup, we were fairly skinny in a lot of positions. From that respect, there's reasonably good performances.
"Are we happy with coming third? No, we're not. We want to do better.
"But, there are a whole lot of things that build into that.
"One, we've got to try and supply the coach with greater depth and better quality of player. The more we can do that, working together with the pathway and the provinces, the stronger the national team's going to be."
That's all part of Nucifora's remit and yesterday he announced the appointment of four provincial 'talent' coaches who will be tasked with identifying 15- and 16-year-old players of promise from non-traditional rugby schools and the club game. Former Ireland second-row Trevor Hogan is the highest profile of the four and he is charged with covering Leinster, while Michael Black will look after Ulster, Colm Tucker Connacht and Mark Butler Munster.
That is the beginning, but one of Nucifora's main targets is increased movement of young players between the provinces and he believes that he is starting to make progress with Cian Kelleher's move from Leinster to Connacht and Sam Arnold's switch from Ulster to Munster prime examples.
"I think that will snowball, the players will vote on this with their feet," he said. The number of players who have chosen to move to different provinces for next season is heartening.
"I don't think there will ever be a mad rush of change at the highest level of our playing group, the biggest numbers that we'll see will be the younger players, the Academy and development players looking for their opportunities. I'd expect those numbers to start to increase."
Has international experience from his time with England and is well-regarded by the players.
Has achieved incredible things with Connacht, playing an attractive attacking brand of rugby.
Nine years as part of the set-up means he would fit right in, but there's a sense he is just getting going at Ulster.
Not yet in the door at Munster, but the highly regarded South African might have been coaching against Ireland this month if circumstances were different.