Uncertainty over Schmidt puts check on new-found optimism
Future looks bright as Six Nations and tour enhance squad depth, but union praying coach stays
If you want an example of how testing the 2015/16 season was for Ireland and Joe Schmidt, just look at the number of caps the head coach handed out.
Fifty-seven players turned out for Ireland over the course of their 17 Test matches since they opened against Wales in August, a reminder of the attritional and transitional nature of a campaign that took in a World Cup, a Six Nations and a three-Test tour of South Africa.
It is a testament to the management skills of Schmidt and his team of coaches that the side remained so competitive through so much change, and the big question at the end of the marathon season is whether he will remain in charge until the next World Cup.
He has returned to New Zealand to make that decision. The IRFU have had a contract extension on the table for some time, but the former Leinster supremo is pondering whether to return home after a decade in Europe; his primary concern is the health of his young son, Luke.
From a rugby perspective there is a lure to return home and succeed in his native land, but there is also a desire to have another crack at the World Cup with his adopted country.
While it appears like he is yet to make the final decision, the smart money is on him exiting the stage at the end of next season, which would leave a giant hole for performance director David Nucifora to fill.
For all that he has attracted unprecedented criticism since the defeat to Argentina in October, the head coach has again proved his worth in the levels of performance Ireland have reached despite the massive change that the squad has undergone in the past 12 months.
Ireland were without central figures at key points of the season as they managed a horrendous injury list and the retirement of an all-time great captain in one fell swoop.
Schmidt pledged to learn from the World Cup quarter-final by deepening his squad and ensuring they can sustain an injury hammer-blow in Japan, but the big question is whether he'll be there to see it through.
With two Tests against New Zealand and one against Australia, next season will be just as tough yet he has kept his message fresh and the introduction of Andy Farrell has breathed new life into the regime,
To a man, players spoke of their enjoyment of the South African tour, even if the new boys found it a struggle to absorb all of the information. The experience, however, means that they have a head start next season.
"Tough" was the word Schmidt used to describe the campaign, but there is a sense that Ireland are stronger than they were during those dark days in winter when the provinces were struggling and the post-World Cup depression had yet to lift.
A third-placed finish in the Six Nations after failing to win the first three games, a near-miss from a quasi-development squad against the Springboks and the U-20s' march on the World Cup final has restored some optimism to Irish rugby. At the end of the season, we have more certainty around the squad but less about the future of the coaching ticket.
The coaching conundrum
If Schmidt does choose to leave after next June's tour of Japan, his replacement will come from within the system. Following the New Zealander proved tough for Matt O'Connor at Leinster, so an internal appointment makes sense.
Farrell has impressed since arriving and, while his defence crumbled at altitude in the second Test, there were signs of progress in that area during the series.
What the former England man doesn't have is head coach experience. Still, there is a confidence about Farrell that suggests that the rugby league legend is on board now to ensure a safe transition at the end of next season.
There are alternatives to Farrell of course, with Pat Lam, Les Kiss and Rassie Erasmus all experienced and successful operators.
Lam would be a popular choice after his exploits with Connacht, while Kiss has worked closely with Schmidt and knows fully what's required to succeed and Erasmus may well have been Springbok coach now were it not for the politics back home.
It all comes down to the choice of Nucifora, but his preference would be to see Schmidt will continue on to another tilt at the Webb Ellis trophy.
The experienced core
The new faces have been the story of the summer, but there's no getting away from the fact that Ireland's best performers in South Africa were the experienced men.
Rory Best was outstanding, Jamie Heaslip's engine kept going until the end and Conor Murray guided his side through.
Keith Earls is now a leader and he and Andrew Trimble will be hard to shift from the wings. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are automatic starters whether together in the centre or not, while Devin Toner proved his worth in the set-piece alongside Iain Henderson. So, for all the progress in developing depth, there is likely to be a familiar look to the side in the autumn.
Hand's up for the All Blacks
Ireland's next international is their meeting with New Zealand in Chicago and, ideally, Schmidt would have all his injured stars back on board.
So, who from the class of 2016 will be able to challenge for places when the likes of Sean O'Brien, Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe and Peter O'Mahony return to the squad?
CJ Stander, who has started every game he's been available for, is an obvious one and how he fits in when O'Mahony returns will be interesting, while Josh van der Flier has proven his worth in the back-row, where Jordi Murphy has re-asserted his credentials.
In the back-line, Payne's performances at full-back have made life difficult for Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo and, if he remains at No 15, Stuart Olding could profit. Olding's strengths complement Henshaw's and the idea of pairing two young men who will be 26 at the next World Cup must appeal.
Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham's emergence has significantly strengthened the tighthead resources. Mike Ross remains as dependable as ever at set-piece, but if Cian Healy can recover from his latest injury then Bealham can shift sides to cover Furlong.
Paddy Jackson has now had three Tests at the highest level and can bank that experience and improve further, while Kieran Marmion can finally emerge from the shadows.
The next generation
Ireland's U-20s found the physical level difficult to deal with when they met an English side with plenty of Premiership experience in the final and, given Max Deegan, Andrew Porter and James Ryan are all in the first year of the Leinster Academy this season, it might be a few years before we see them at the top level.
Instead, this should be the year when Jack O'Donoghue, Garry Ringrose and Luke McGrath make the next step with the fixture against Canada in November and the tour of Japan obvious opportunities for newcomers to make their mark.
Jake Heenan is also Irish qualified in October and could leap-frog his fellow New Zealander Sean Reidy.
By the time we reach the Windy City, we will know far more about where Ireland stand. The coach's future will be sorted, the available players will be known and the All Blacks will focus the minds.
The three-Test tour of South Africa ended in disappointment in terms of results, but if they can get over the line against the world champions it will not have been in vain.
Predicted squad for All Blacks in November: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding, Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Devin Toner; Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Paddy Jackson, Simon Zebo.