Ireland need clear 2019 vision
Whether he is in Japan with Ireland or not, Joe Schmidt has an obligation to work towards World Cup goal
The Six Nations concludes in Paris tonight, but for Ireland there is a sense that 2016 really begins against Scotland this evening.
A third successive Championship ceased to be a realistic proposition for Joe Schmidt's side after their defeat to France and since then the head coach has been looking to build up his squad for the gruelling schedule that awaits his side.
Three Tests in South Africa loom in June, while in November they take on New Zealand twice and Australia once. Canada complete the schedule for a team that will know a lot more about themselves in December.
The remaining eight games in this calendar year look like forming a very important part of the team's development towards the 2019 World Cup and their next bid to break the quarter-final glass ceiling.
Schmidt is putting the first building blocks in place, but the IRFU, the players, the fans and even the New Zealander himself don't know if he will be in charge when Ireland go to Japan in three years' time.
He wasn't expecting to be asked about his future at Thursday's team announcement. but when the question came he delivered a clear-cut timeline on his big decision which will be made this summer.
That the call is Schmidt's to make is an indication of his standing.
There may have been more vocal criticism of the team and coach since the defeat to Argentina than ever before, but no one is seriously suggesting that Ireland would be better off without him.
This is the first campaign of his tenure that will end without a medal, but the injury list and the need to fill the leadership void left by Paul O'Connell have afforded the coach a little breathing space.
For all that there is some frustration about his hesitancy in bringing through young blood and the worries about Ireland's attacking game, the New Zealander remains one of the foremost thinkers in the game who combines that intellect with a motivational capacity that gets the best out of his players.
Ireland have enjoyed some great days under the head coach and their chances of experiencing more of the same are far greater if he remains in the job.
The decision that Schmidt must make is multi-faceted. Family considerations will play a big role as he takes his son Luke's well-publicised health issues into account along with the fact that his family have been living outside New Zealand for a long time.
From a rugby perspective, there is the prospect of one day coaching the All Blacks that must tug at his heart-strings. Schmidt has never publicly stated that ambition, but he is a driven man who is passionate about coaching and must surely have designs on the top job in his homeland.
Steve Hansen's expected departure after the 2017 Lions tour fits well with Schmidt's timeline. He may not be in line for the top job, but there will be plenty of movement in New Zealand that summer and it could be the ideal time to get on the ladder.
Yet there may be a sense of unfinished business in his adopted homeland. The World Cup was going so well for Ireland until a third of the team was made unavailable in the space of 10 days. You get the sense that Schmidt could see something special developing and, after watching it disappear before his eyes, would like to learn from the experience and try again.
If he does give notice of his intention to leave in the summer of 2017 in July, then the IRFU will have a major job on their hands to replace their coach; especially with some members of the coaching staff, including new defence coach Andy Farrell, signed up until 2019.
It would also leave the 2016/17 season in a kind of limbo, with players playing for a coach who they know is leaving at the end of the campaign.
Undoubtedly, he will give his all and they will have their own goals to play for; but the spectre of a lame duck looms large.
Ireland can't afford to waste a season. The defeat to Argentina only hammered home the need to succeed at the next World Cup if this country is ever going to be truly taken seriously at the top level.
Schmidt has done more to drive standards and his departure would be a blow. His players want clarity.
"From a player's point of view, you want to know what's happening. I don't know if you can necessarily plan accordingly. For us, we really do go game to game and camp to camp," captain Rory Best said, echoing Johnny Sexton's comments yesterday.
"I don't think there are too many players in this squad at the minute that are planning the next World Cup, certainly I'm not. Even the young kids, if you start to look too far ahead you start to lose focus on what's important. What's important is Saturday and then, from an Ireland point of view, the summer tour.
"It's probably more important for the IRFU and the coaching structure themselves that they get that. From our point of view, no matter what Joe does, we will enjoy and love playing under him until such time as he goes.
"After that it will be whoever comes next, you'll adapt and you'll take the positives and negatives from that. . . that's the way it is. We would love Joe to stay, but whenever he moves on it'll be, 'Right, who's next and what can I do to impress him?'"
Earlier this week, Sean O'Brien said he was excited about what's coming down the track for Ireland as he assesses the talent that has been added to the ranks during this Six Nations and the next batch of youngsters who are coming on board.
Schmidt has drawn criticism for a perceived conservatism when it comes to selection, with his hesitancy in bringing Garry Ringrose into the squad one example.
Yet he has capped five new players this Six Nations and brought the young Leinster centre and his old U-20 captain Jack O'Donoghue into the ranks during the campaign. He doesn't think they're quite ready, but wants them primed when the time comes.
"There's a really, really good attitude," Best said of the new faces. "You look at someone like Josh van der Flier. It's almost got to the stage where you're expecting to come down for breakfast and he's going to be in a sleeping bag in the corner of the video room, because he just doesn't leave the place. He just wants to continually work and improve and get better.
"That's the sort of attitude that you get. Jack O'Donoghue came in and him and Josh were sitting with each other for an hour or an hour and a half in the video room, Josh getting him up to speed with what he needs to do in the back-row."
That focus on detailed preparation is just part of Schmidt's legacy, but despite his promise Van der Flier has found himself dropped from the squad this weekend.
Ireland's starting XV is the oldest of any who will see Six Nations action today, and even with an apparent lack of depth in certain positions, the coach seems determined to stick with senior men through thick and thin.
Perhaps that's because 2019 will be someone else's problem, but that idea is at odds with a coach who has attended the U-20s games during this Six Nations and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of every player in the system. Whether he stays or goes, he's the kind of man who will commit fully to the job.
Either way, today's game against Scotland is in must-win territory. Third looks a lot healthier than fifth in an end-of-season review, while the powers that be have yet to decide whether they'll hold the draw for Japan this December and, considering what's coming, seventh-ranked Ireland need as much buffer as they can get.
A win over his old mate Vern Cotter would set Schmidt up nicely for the bruising series to come and, if he delivers a top-two seeding for the World Cup he'll have taken the first couple of steps towards success in 2019.
Whether or not he'll be around to finish the job will only become clear this summer.