Schmidt opts for future-proofing with 2019 in mind
Series a chance for young guns to bed in, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
Joe Schmidt won't like it but, understandably, the omission of Simon Zebo from his Ireland squad drew all the focus when the panel was named yesterday.
The head coach stuck to his routine by avoiding a press conference to go with the announcement so we are left with plenty of questions about his thinking.
What is clear, however, is that the Ireland coach has one eye on 2019 with the squad that he's named.
As well as four new caps, three of whom are 24 and younger, Schmidt has included four 21-year-olds who made their Ireland debuts over the course of the summer tour.
Three of them, Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter, were leading lights when the U-20s reached the 2016 World Cup final, while the fourth - Ulster's Kieran Treadwell - played underage for England but qualifies for Ireland through his parents.
Add them to new faces Darren Sweetnam, Adam Byrne and Chris Farrell and you have a fresh influx of youth into a squad that has been freshened up by the likes of Dan Leavy, Joey Carbery, Ultan Dillane and the unfortunately injured Josh van der Flier in the seasons since the 2015 World Cup.
Bundee Aki is the fourth newcomer, but he falls into a different bracket as an experienced operator with Super Rugby experience who is set to go straight into the team that will face South Africa in just over two weeks' time.
Like CJ Stander and Jared Payne before him, the Aucklander has long been earmarked for an Ireland jersey and is set to have a big role to play - especially given Garry Ringrose misses the window through injury.
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He is likely to be the only new face given an opportunity in week one, although Zebo's absence - plus the decision not to select Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe - means there is a vacancy in the back-three to fight for and Stockdale, Byrne and Sweetnam will be battling Andrew Conway and Dave Kearney for that.
The younger Kearney brother is perhaps a surprise inclusion given he has struggled to get into the Leinster team since returning from injury, but his older brother is a lock for the No 15 shirt against South Africa as long as he proves his fitness in Belfast this weekend.
Schmidt is likely to for an experienced line-up in week one, before rotating against Fiji and then restoring most of the front-liners against Argentina.
Keith Earls is in flying form, while Robbie Henshaw won't take much time to get back in the groove alongside his old pal Aki in midfield.
The Aucklander adds something different to Ireland's arsenal, offering supreme power and attacking flair as well as a defensive grit and leadership.
Often fiery, sometimes controversial and never dull, his relationship with the disciplinarian Schmidt will be worth watching.
The half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton barely merits a mention.
Up front, Rory Best is named as captain and he'll have Tadhg Furlong on one side.
With Cian Healy in flying form, Schmidt will have a tough time choosing between his two looseheads given Jack McGrath's previous contributions.
Second-row looks a simple call with Donnacha Ryan no longer part of the picture, so Devin Toner is likely to be joined by Iain Henderson.
The back-row is a more complex conundrum given the number of players in flying form, but perhaps the experience and leadership provided by Lions trio Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander remains the most likely combination.
Rhys Ruddock will have something to say about that, however, as will Dan Leavy, Jack Conan and Tommy O'Donnell.
They may have to wait until week two to get their opportunity against the Pacific Islanders.
Schmidt's bench calls will be interesting, not least the role he finds for Joey Carbery who has been excellent for Leinster, playing at full-back in Kearney's absence.
An out-half by trade, his versatility and attacking threat makes him a game-changing option in the No 22 jersey, but his goal-kicking struggles could work against him.
He, though, is a player with a big role to play as Ireland work towards their goal of achieving at the 2019 World Cup.
How Schmidt uses his young guns will be telling.