Jonathan Bradley: Ireland's post-Schmidt era is filled with uncertainty as World Cup answers remain as far away as ever after New Zealand defeat
No matter how meticulous, few in sport are afforded the opportunity of scripting their own goodbye.
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For everything that Joe Schmidt was able to change within and about Irish Rugby, the World Cup quarter-final remains this nation's glass ceiling, the final game of an unforgettable six years in charge one of the lowest points of his tenure. That there was a degree of competition for that crown is an indication of just how curious his last season at the helm has become the longer it has worn on.
While the Triple Crowns in the early part of this century, 2009's Grand Slam, and provincial successes on the European stage all laid the foundation, Schmidt has been the undoubted key figure in taking things to a new level in the sport in Ireland, one that, regardless of the foibles of the system, had Ireland ranked as the number one side on the planet as this tournament began.
Back-to-back Six Nations titles for a first time since the 1940s, the breaking of an 111-year hoodoo against the All Blacks, a maiden Test win in South Africa and a first series win over the Wallabies in Australia since 1979. The list of achievements has been lengthy, the effect on Irish Rugby transformative.
Yet since beating these same All Blacks in November of last year, after which he revealed he'd be leaving post Ireland's involvement here in Japan, the bad days have been more frequent. England and Wales in the Six Nations as well as the Twickenham debacle in August were chalked up to degrees of experimentation. Here on the biggest stage though, has been definitive evidence of a side who have lost their way. Only against Scotland did they resemble the side that consistently went to the well for Schmidt again and again.
It's been a hell of a ride but now that it's ended with a crash the inevitable questions of what comes next loom large.
We've known for a year that it will be Andy Farrell succeeding Schmidt. Twelve months ago few would have predicted he'd be coming into a job that looked quite so labour intensive.
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Four years building towards today and it feels no less like Ireland are confounded in their search for a successful formula at this competition than it did after 2015. And 2011. And 2007. On and on it goes.
Again, Ireland peaked half way through four-year cycle. Redressing that all too common trend will be Farrell's task before France in 2023, the key question surely just when he begins that process. A backwards step may well be required before there can ever be a leap into the semi-finals. Players still the best in their position now certainly won't be in four years time. The future sure to benefit from their increased exposure to these type of challenges coming sooner rather than later.
The Englishman already needs a new captain and hooker, Rory Best's rugby career ending in an equally ill-fitting manner with this loss, but there will be plenty more upheaval expected between now and then.
Over a quarter of Schmidt's squad for Japan boarded the plane with their 30th birthdays in the rearview mirror. If preparation for the next tournament is to be treated as a four-year entity, the next wave will have to be entrusted with starting jerseys before their form merits. While Johnny Sexton bristled somewhat at the notion on Friday, there is no doubt that change is on the way for a group many of whom had three cracks at delivering that much sought after semi-final.
James Ryan remains the centre piece of the future, while the likes of Garry Ringrose Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, and the still only 26-year-old Tadhg Furlong are, injury-permitting, here for the long haul too. For the remainder, there is considerably less certainty.
But as much as the who there is the question of how.
For six years, Ireland's style has mirrored their head coach. Despite the history-making feats, it's been damned, either outright or by faint praise, by coaches and pundits around the rugby world but, for better or worse, change is now inevitable.
Farrell has already had his own stamp defensively since succeeding Les Kiss in 2016 but, with a different attacking mind shouldering the load, new ideas, patterns and perhaps even ethos are on the way.
With Italy having been a beaten docket for much of his tenure alongside Conor O'Shea with the Azzurri, the incoming Mike Catt's style remains something of an unknown, quite what he brings to the party come the Six Nations will be one of the early curiosities once Ireland regroup for their bread and butter of the Six Nations in February of next year.
There is little point in revisionist history, when Ireland have been good, they've been very good. Their oft-maligned approach having delivered all that aforementioned success. But as alluded to by a number of players over the past six months, when your strength is in the collective, there is little opportunity to rescue a performance once the group's level drops. When the ship heads towards the rocks, there has been little evidence of a reverse course for a side who are far better front-runners than chasers. Here in Japan, mistake has bred mistake and when not nailed on, there has seemed no provision for individual rescue acts.
Carbery and Larmour especially seem ideally suited to a change of approach, while the likes of Ringrose and Stockdale, are capable too. If they are to be granted the freedom many have called for though, it would be at the expense of Schmidt's successful formula. There is an obvious fear that, even in the immediate aftermath of such a discomforting defeat, it's still better the devil you know.
Regardless, the World Cup is over, so too the Joe Schmidt era. The questions have only started. It will feel a long while before the answers start to come.
Belfast Telegraph Digital