Ireland head into November series with strength in depth
Two years ago, at this time of year, Ireland set out on the toughest schedule of Tests in our history. That November series stands alone; even allowing for modern World Cups where a warm-up series of three or four games leads in to a five-match programme - in 2015 in England, for example, those five games were spread over 29 days.
But in 2016 it was two Tests against the All Blacks, one against the Wallabies and a down week filled by Canada, in 21 days, throwing in Chicago and the travel factor only steepened the climb.
With the Lions tour to New Zealand at the end of that season, the series gave us a good snapshot of where the Irish contenders were lined up. So with a World Cup looming soon after the end of this November's Tests, that picture is a good deal more important. And, thankfully, it's a more appealing vista.
Joe Schmidt's plan two years ago was to pick two match squads, to cover the New Zealand and Canada games, that would get him to week three with targets reached and enough personnel ready to plough into the rematch with the All Blacks. He hadn't budgeted for a win in Chicago. Certainly he liked the look of a New Zealand side that was light on grunt with neither Brodie Retallick nor Sam Whitelock in the second row, and then the game took a good shape early on with the sin-binning of Joe Moody. But that win was a bonus. So too was the fact that all bar Jordi Murphy would be fit for the rematch in Dublin.
In between came Canada, which shone a light on Schmidt's second string. Tiernan O'Halloran, Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall all featured in the starting line-up of backs that day. In the pack, an in-form Billy Holland was rewarded for sterling service to the Munster game with his first and only start for his country. And in the back row Jack O'Donoghue started at number eight.
The bench, with the exception of Dave Kilcoyne and Donnacha Ryan, was a collection of lads whose best years were deemed to be ahead of them. Only Niyi Adeolokun has effectively disappeared from that group.
In all the coach used 38 players over the opening two rounds, and 39 to get him through the four games in the series. At the end of it the headlines were still in bold capitals about the venom of the All Black backlash rather than the depth of Ireland's talent, which had returned three wins from four. Still, we thought it was decent enough.
Last week Schmidt announced a squad of 42 to take us through an easier series of games. His frontline players will be spared the long hauls to and from Chicago for next weekend's game against Italy, which will leave them in better nick for what follows: Argentina, New Zealand and USA. If the home team don't win the first and third of those home games there will be a stewards' enquiry.
If you signed off from the 2015 World Cup thinking the Pumas - with their Jaguares getting access to Super Rugby - were about to become regular instead of occasional contenders, then you'll be wondering why their win rate has been less than 28 per cent since then.
Argentina is a great rugby nation that exports most of its talent. The side that ended Ireland's interest in the World Cup - the only significant blot on the Schmidt copybook, and remains the biggest disappointment of his career - was a credit to Daniel Hourcade, who shaped them. But Super Rugby drained them, and instead of a squad who knew each other's play inside out it was a fatigued group who became tired of everything. Hourcade was succeeded in June by Puma legend Mario Ledesma. He will largely stick with the home-grown route, adding in from outside on a needs-must basis and with the approval of the Argentine Rugby Union.
Ireland will be fully loaded for this, as they were a year ago. And Schmidt will be praying for a good return on the injury front with the All Blacks, who have lost just four times since the last World Cup, fetching up the next week. Already that fixture has created the kind of hunger for tickets we only see around the tail end of the Six Nations when there is a lot on the line. Add in the Eagles to finish - sadly they will not be flying in with Aj MacGinty - and we'll have joined another few dots in the sketch for Japan next year.
Getting through that lot will probably involve all 42 players in Schmidt's squad. The coach has a pathological fear of accepting in public that things are better than ever. That's how he is. And it's also how things are. The improvement in depth from just two years ago is significant, and the measure of it will come in the strength of the teams that start and finish the series.
You'd expect a backline against Italy and USA that features Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, Sammy Arnold, Stuart McCloskey, Darren Sweetnam, Joey Carbery/Ross Byrne and John Cooney/Luke McGrath. And perhaps a starting pack of Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, and John Ryan in the front row, with Quinn Roux and Iain Henderson behind them, and a back row of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier.
Effectively, Schmidt can cover the first two games with minimal crossover between the two match day squads. Two years ago he called on eight of those involved in the win in Chicago to turn up for duty again the following Saturday against Canada. Now he can halve that figure and still put out a side of real quality.
The best example of this progress is at tighthead. It's not that long since injury to John Hayes would have skewed the price on Ireland on match day. With Finlay Bealham now back to the shape and form that won him so much attention two years ago, Schmidt has four tightheads on board without having to call on Marty Moore or Stephen Archer. With only two games under his belt since coming back from Wasps, Moore was well short of a gallop when this squad was being put together. He is still only 27. If he can get a run of games you wouldn't know how his season might pan out.
The same can hardly be said of Paddy Jackson. His rugby career, clearly, is not over but it will be a while before it takes him back to this part of the world. Had things worked out differently then he would be an important part of this series, the Six Nations and the World Cup, along with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, whose move to Munster has already paid dividends.
Schmidt drums it into his players to park mistakes as soon as they happen and move on to the next job immediately. Part of him, however, will look back at the Ulster episode and wonder how good he would feel with a full house at his disposal.
He should be happy enough with the hand he's been dealt.
Next Saturday: Ireland v Italy, Chicago 8.0pm (Irish time)
November 10: Ireland v Argentina, Aviva Stadium 6.30
November 17: Ireland v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium 7.0
November 24: Ireland v United States, Aviva Stadium 6.30
Sunday Indo Sport