Schmidt must make bold calls to rein in English progress
THERE are 568 days to go before the eighth Rugby World Cup gets under way at Twickenham on September 18 next year, but already England coach Stuart Lancaster is seeing rewards for bold decisions taken early on in his reign.
Having been installed in a caretaker capacity following England's hellish 2011 World Cup under Martin Johnson, it may be that Lancaster felt he had nothing to lose and so was free to make calls based on the bigger picture rather than out of fear of the result in the next match.
He ditched the boys of the old brigade, replacing them with fresh faces. He blooded youngsters early on, which means that when the curtain goes up on the eighth RWC in autumn 2015, the hosts will have had considerable experience of Test rugby.
The 36-man squad he named ahead of the current RBS 6 Nations included five then-uncapped players – Bath pair George Ford and Anthony Watson, Leicester Tigers' Ed Slater, Northampton Saints' Luther Burrell and Exeter Chiefs' Jack Nowell.
Nowell's appearance against Ireland in Saturday's 13-10 England victory was his third outing at senior international level. He is 20, as is Ford, who was on the England bench.
Watson turns 20 today, making Burrell at 26 look like a senior citizen. Like Nowell, he won his third cap at the weekend.
You can see what Lancaster is doing. England have 17 matches between now and facing the Oceanic 1 winners in the World Cup opener. That gives players like Nowell, Ford and Watson the opportunity to amass upwards of 20 caps by the age of 22.
I suspect that in the wake of Ireland's defeat last Saturday at Twickenham, Lancaster's Irish counterpart, Joe Schmidt, will start making similarly big calls. Those two June dates with the Pumas in Argentina could well see significant changes.
Brian O'Driscoll's decision to call it quits at the end of this campaign spared the coach one difficult decision. But if certain others are unwilling to jump, it falls upon Schmidt to give them a push through the exit door in order to create space and provide pre-World Cup experience for players with a future rather than a past.
Like England, Ireland have a plethora of young talent in Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Rob Herring, Iain Henderson, Tommy O'Donnell, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Robbie Henshaw and Ian Madigan.
In addition, 20-year-old Stuart Olding certainly will come into the reckoning as soon as he is over his ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury, while Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo should soon be knocking on the door for seats on Ireland's Argentina-bound plane. Robin Copeland is another who will be in the mix.
One sympathises with modern day coaches who are under enormous pressure to deliver results in the here and now. But forward-planning goes with the territory, too, the ideal being to keep those two plates spinning simultaneously.
Lancaster got his job with the RFU during Declan Kidney's tenure as Ireland coach and, in view of the latter's ultra-conservative approach, England began stealing a march from that moment.
Regardless of where Ireland finish in the 2014 Six Nations, 48-year-old Schmidt – one of the best young coaches in world rugby – knows better than anyone that he is going to have to start culling with a view to events a year-and-a-half rather than a week-and-a-half down the line.
Post-Six Nations, his selections for the remainder of 2014 – those two Tests in Argentina in June followed by three home dates with South Africa, Georgia and Australia in November – are going to be very interesting indeed.