Garry Ringrose, Matt Healy, Jack O’Donoghue, Stuart Olding, and Jack Carty are among those mentioned admiringly by Ireland’s head coach and assistants as being on the IRFU’s radar and many of them have been welcomed into training camp at Carton House these past few weeks.
Others have already been given their chance, Schmidt making Test players of CJ Stander, Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane, and Finlay Bealham across the five championship matches.
They have helped injury-hit Ireland finish the 2016 Six Nations on a high, Saturday’s victory over the Scots giving them back-to-back wins to lift the former champions out of the doldrums and into the top half of the table. That was Schmidt’s stated ambition for this season given the circumstances of a cruel schedule and the absence of so much Test experience through retirement and injury.
The performances in dispatching both Italy and a strong Scotland side have also given the squad much needed momentum to take into the rest of the year. Three Tests in South Africa, where Ireland have never won, loom large and there are appointments with the All Blacks, whom Ireland have never beaten, in November, in Chicago and Dublin, respectively. And let’s not forget Michael Cheika’s Australia, who follow the world champions into Aviva Stadium eight months from now.
Such is the challenging nature of those contests that the opportunities for those aforementioned uncapped players will be through necessity. For while it is Schmidt’s duty to nurture Ireland’s talent and develop it to Test level, his other obligation is to protect the team’s world ranking ahead of the 2019 World Cup pool draw. That means playing his strongest possible team against the toughest oppositions in the hope Ireland do not slip outside the top eight and end up unseeded in a pool of death in Japan three years from now.
Schmidt has already said he might not be around after his contract expires in June 2017 and on Saturday night he reiterated his desire not to look beyond that date personally, when family matters rather than rugby could determine his future. Instead he looked forward not to further experimentation but to welcoming back his trusted lieutenants for the big games on the immediate horizon.
So the names eagerly anticipated are not Ringrose, O’Donoghue, and co but Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, and Chris Henry.
His strongest team may have an average age pushing 30 but every ounce of their experience will be needed to succeed this summer and autumn, and any transition to younger blood will come naturally and in the presence of those older stagers he argued.
“One of the best things about having experience — and sure today there are some aged members of the club — is that those guys have a really important IP (intellectual property) that they pass on to those younger players. And so to suddenly say he is past his use-by date and throw him out, sometimes you get some real benefit from that guy being around,” said Schmidt.
“We were desperately glueing Drico (Brian O’Driscoll) together in his last year a couple of years ago not just because of what he delivered on the pitch on which he was still delivering, but what he passed on to the young guys, the Robbie Henshaws. Robbie didn’t play in that (2014 Six Nations) tournament at all but when Robbie did play in the next tournament, for me, he was one of the stand-out players in the tournament and he continues to play really well for us.
“So there is no perfect answer because you have only got 10-12 Test matches per year; that’s not a lot of 80 minutes when there is always massive pressure to win them.
“There is a massive pressure to try and get one in South Africa. In our rugby history we haven’t managed to get one win in South Africa so it would be fantastic to get there and try to put a performance together that is sufficiently good enough to put us in the mix for a win.
“The age is there and the youth is there as well. It is just not as visible because they probably didn’t get as much opportunities. As I said, the five guys who made their debuts, they got a window of opportunity and a taste for it, and certainly if you talk to the five of them, the hunger to really get some more, and hopefully that spurs some of the guys who are on the periphery at the moment, through injury or, as you say, those younger guys, hopefully, they keep that pressure on through the back-end of the season.”
Schmidt will definitely have one new face on the plane to Cape Town in June, incoming defence coach Andy Farrell, who will have no doubt winced as Scotland’s Stuart Hogg collected a poor Conor Murray box kick and sprinted off in search of a soft Irish midfield defence. Having effortlessly split it on halfway, he scored the opening try of the game and gave Ireland warning they were up against visitors far more threatening than the previous week’s, when sorry Italy were put to the sword.
This was stiffer opposition but so was Ireland’s resolve and along with it a ruthlessness that had gone AWOL for two-and-a-half games against Wales, France, and England.
Tries from Stander, Keith Earls on his 50th cap, Murray’s third of the championship, and Devin Toner’s first in Tests, punished a Scotland side whose discipline had been left at home; Ireland scored three tries and 19 points against 14 men, with Vern Cotter’s side losing a player to the sin bin in each half of what became an increasingly narky affair. Johnny Sexton contributed 15 points but then saw yellow himself for a ruck infringement four minutes from time.
By then, though, Ireland were home and dry, already turning their attention to bigger challenges ahead.
S Zebo; A Trimble (F McFadden, 78), J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray (E Reddan, 78); J McGrath (C Healy, 67), R Best, capt (R Strauss, 67), M Ross (N White, 63); D Ryan (U Dillane, 69), D Toner; CJ Stander, T O’Donnell (R Ruddock, 69), J Heaslip.
S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor, A Dunbar, T Visser (S Lamont, 69); D Weir (P Horne, 63), G Laidlaw, capt; A Dickinson (R Sutherland, 66), R Ford (S McInally, 50), WP Nel (M Low, 68); R Gray, T Swinson (R Harley, 63); J Barclay (J Strauss, 53), J Hardie, R Wilson.
Barclay (25-35); Dunbar (67-77)
Pascal Gauzere (France)