Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Preparation won't be disrupted by Schmidt's absence - but it's a big week for four players'
For four years, Joe Schmidt has been attempting to future-proof his squad to be able to cope with adversity and be ready for the unexpected.
When his side last faced Italy outside of the Six Nations, he remained at home with a bunch of players to prepare for the clash with New Zealand later in the month in the knowledge that they were in safe hands with his experienced back-room team.
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So, when he had to return to New Zealand due to a family bereavement at the weekend, he knew he could trust his assistants and players to keep the show on the road and implement his plans in his absence.
As Greg Feek said yesterday, the head coach is in regular contact with Andy Farrell and the rest of the team as he monitors preparations for this Saturday's first outing against the Azzurri from afar. In his absence, Farrell has been running the show at Carton House this week.
Come November, he'll be the main man anyway so he'll take the challenge in his stride and will keep things ticking over until Schmidt chooses to return.
According to Feek, he should be back before the opening warm-up game against Conor O'Shea's side and motivation won't be an issue for a bunch of players desperate to prove themselves worthy of World Cup selection.
The game is shaping up as quite an important one for a number of players who could view it as a last chance to impress.
Yesterday, Ireland put Chris Farrell, Luke McGrath, Dave Kearney and Tommy O'Donnell up for media interviews and it follows that they'll all have some involvement at the weekend.
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All of those players have something to prove in the coming weeks and they'll know that the opportunities to impress will be limited.
Kearney and O'Donnell have won just three caps each in this World Cup cycle, with the former's last outing coming in 2017 and the flanker's a year earlier.
A series of untimely injuries have limited Leinster leader McGrath's involvement to 10 caps, while Farrell would have earned more than five but for his serious knee injury.
He's been involved more recently, but faces a tough task to get on to the plane given the competition for a finite number of places in the backline. Monday's decision to release Rory Scannell and Ultan Dillane saw the beginning of a whittling-down process.
Conversations are ongoing about who will make the final 31-man squad and Feek conceded that the process is more competitive than it was in 2015. The discussions among the coaching staff have been heated as they assess the contenders.
"It's intense," he admitted.
"We're not flipping tables or anything like that, you know, but it's good, robust conversation and sometimes it's a little bit of, 'Well, we have to wait and see'.
"Hooker, lock, these guys have to front up in the next (few weeks), you know, to see where they're at.
"I do feel there's some really good competition.
"You look at it and you've got guys that can cover both sides (of the scrum), but what happens on the loosehead?
"You've got looseheads playing well and you've got tightheads playing well, and you've got hookers all vying for a spot. And second-row is no different.
"It's kind of exciting for us."
Although Schmidt is usually the one driving standards at the squad's Kildare base, he'll know that the desire to impress will continue in his absence.
The players all know the score and their competitive instincts will kick in over the coming days as they step up in intensity before kick-off at 2pm on Saturday.
So far, the squad have been put under duress to try and ensure they can cope when the heat comes on in Japan.
"Joe has put pressure on us," McGrath said yesterday. "In a month's time, we have these incredibly big pressure games so he's putting pressure on us all in training.
"He's giving us the best opportunity to show what we can do in these pressure games, and from here on in, the pressure will build so it's about how we handle it."
Schmidt will be watching from afar and the players know he'll go through their performance in minute detail.
This is an unplanned absence, but it is another stress test for his squad to go through ahead of their greatest challenge and he will back them to cope with the adversity and take another step towards Japan.