As the head coaches and captains did the rounds in the post-World Cup pool draw interview session on Monday there were many opportunities for handshakes, jokes and snatched conversations between their various media obligations.
Not that every opportunity was taken.
Out of a press conference room stepped New Zealand’s Steve Hansen and Richie McCaw as France’s Philippe Saint-Andre and Thierry Dusautoir waited to enter and not even a glance was shared between the protagonists of last season’s World Cup final.
Yet the French did engage with Ireland’s Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll in that London media centre and having been drawn together in Pool D for England 2015 they had calculated what was at stake.
Win that pool and the most likely quarter-final opponent will be Argentina, as probable Pool C runners-up. Finish group runners-up and, well, there will be an altogether different challenge — New Zealand.
Of course, Ireland themselves upset the seemingly pre-ordained unravelling of the draw in 2011 when they beat Tri Nations champions Australia in group play to win a World Cup pool for the first time and change the course of the competition. Not that it helped Kidney’s team, who squandered their supposedly more favourable draw and lost to Wales in the last eight.
Still, wishing to avoid the defending champions is a given and both parties recognised that as they crossed paths on Monday.
In Kidney’s words, there is a huge carrot to winning the group, yet the Ireland boss was looking no further than how to simply get out of the pool and that means negotiating a section that resembles a mini Six Nations. The Irish not only have to beat France in three years’ time but Italy also, and the way Sergio Parisse and company pushed Australia last month before going down narrowly, there is every chance the Azzurri could be formidable as well as familiar opposition themselves in 2015.
“I think the nature of the games when you get to them are really tight,” Kidney said. “Not alone are the players playing against each other at Test level, they’re playing against each other at club level. So you know one another’s nuances inside out. That makes space really tight… the draw is this week, the World Cup isn’t for three years… and games like that will be decided by one small bounce of the ball.
“If you’re into that, that’s a good thing. If you like to be able to say, ‘if we put a decent workload in we’ll get a good return’, that’s not the way these matches turn out. We’ve played France now several times in the World Cup and we always find it difficult. They always seem to peak well and also the fact that the way the play-offs [pan out] — we met Dusautoir and Saint-Andre and they were saying, ‘the winners of our Pool play who?… and the runners-up play who?’… they know it’s New Zealand and Argentina already. That’s a huge carrot for them.”
There is an awful lot of rugby to be played in between and most likely some considerable turnover in personnel, not least in Ireland where the talismanic O’Driscoll sees the next World Cup as being “18 months too far” down the line for his battered body.
Yet among the constants are the three Six Nations championships between now and World Cup 2015.
According to Kidney, that does not mean an extended phoney war and this week’s draw will not shape the way Ireland approach their next three meetings with either France or Italy.
“If we tried being cute or coy about it, then all of a sudden you’re going to take a hammering. I think where Irish rugby is we can beat anybody if we get ourselves right, but we also have the potential to lose to anybody if we’re not right.”
Not getting it right has been a theme of many Irish World Cup campaigns and history has taught Kidney not to start planning for the knockout stages too far ahead of schedule.
“There’s times we haven’t got to the quarter-final,” he said. “That’s why I say we shouldn’t go beyond ourselves. One step will be to get out of the pool, and I think if we lose sight of that in the World Cup, that’s where we can slip up.”
Qualifying in the second band of seeds for 2015 courtesy of that impressive victory over Argentina two weekends back was more than just a morale boost for Ireland. With the experience of the 2011 pool in mind, it also affords Ireland valuable breathing space between games and gives the head coach options in terms of squad rotation.
“That’s where the order of the matches is quite important because trying to pick the strategy of being able to get out of it; we were able to rest guys between Australia and Italy in that two-week gap. Italy had to play maybe 10 or 11 players against Russia or America five days before they played us, and if you look at the way that match went it was the last 20 minutes that we went away with it.”
At least Kidney will not have to wait three years to find out the running order. The fixture schedule and match venues are expected to be finalised by the organising board by the end of March.
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