Their odds have been slashed, a vice-captain’s fist pump has been reported, and celebrations appear to have begun following Ireland’s pool draw for the 2019 World Cup.
Yet, while fate has appeared to have dealt Joe Schmidt a lucky hand with Scotland and hosts Japan the top seeds’ primary rivals in Pool A, there are plenty of potholes lying in wait on the road between Ireland and their ambition of a long overdue first World Cup semi-final.
Let us not pretend yesterday’s draw in Kyoto was not favourable for Ireland compared to the other potential pool permutations. Head coach Schmidt will not have been tempted to offer a swap deal to England counterpart Eddie Jones after the back-to-back Six Nations winners were pooled with arch rivals France and 2015 semi-finalists Argentina, nor will he be wishing he could have drawn South Africa or Wales from the second seeds’ pot given defeats to both in the past 11 months.
That was all reflected by Ireland’s odds of winning the Webb Ellis Cup next time around being halved by Irish bookmakers Ladbrokes from 12s to 6/1, while at an event to mark the draw hosted by Land Rover in London, Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip’s reaction to the draw was, according to the car company’s PR machine, “an instinctive fist pump underscoring (Ireland’s) hugely agreeable line-up”.
Speaking afterwards, the Ireland vice-captain said: “Getting to avoid South Africa, France, and Wales, that’s a big thing for us. We’re happy with it, there’s some tougher groups, but when you’ve seen what Japan have done in the last 18 months and Scotland we’ve struggled with as well.
“It’s an exciting group for us, and I’d say Joe is already starting his planning.”
Yet the head coach is enough of a realist to understand how much can change between now and the big kick-off in September 2019 and that both the Scots and Japanese are very much on an ascending trajectory in terms of their progression while the two other teams in Pool A have yet to be decided, although Schmidt was placing his bets on Romania occupying the Europe 1 berth and one of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga assuming the role of play-off winner. And that was without mentioning that Ireland’s quarter-final opponents would be either back-to-back champions New Zealand or the Springboks.
“I think they’re all good, bad, and ugly, really,” Schmidt said of the pool draw. “It’s very hard to assess where teams are going to be in two years’ time, for example. I think the upward curve that Japan have taken in recent times, they got very close to beating Wales at the Millennium Stadium last autumn and their heroics at the last Rugby World Cup were pretty spectacular.
“The play-off winner could be Romania, most likely, and we’ll need to be on our mettle, while the last one could be Tonga or Samoa or Fiji, depending on how that works out because they have traditionally got through and got really strong representation in the previous World Cups.
“We lost to Scotland recently, so it’s a mixed bag but I think it’s incredibly exciting to draw the host nation in that the crowd, the enthusiasm and interest in that game is going to be huge.”
Jamie Joseph succeeded Eddie Jones as head coach of the Brave Blossoms following that historic victory over the Boks in Brighton 18 months ago and being in charge of the host team offers him the best opportunity yet of taking Japan into the quarters, given they are unlikely to be handed a schedule as unforgiving as the one dealt to them in England. They have been given the honour of playing the first game, with the ensuing fixture scheduling set to be finalised after the summer, possibly casting Ireland as their opponents.
Schmidt is certainly not going to underestimate them and he even admitted the former All Black flanker was a little intimidating as Ireland prepare for a two-test series in Japan next month.
“I think the Japanese national team have really progressed in a short term, and even going back probably two or three years,” said Schmidt. “I think June is going to be very tough for us. This draw today will spark a real interest because people will want an entree of what will be a main meal in two-and-a-bit years’ time.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Jamie Joseph — he’s a scary man! I think he’ll bring a real energy to the group. I know some of his coaching staff too. Together, they will be very, very effective in progressing the team further.”
Ireland, though, will remain the team to beat, despite February’s opening-day Six Nations defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield earlier this season.
“Ireland have been one of the most competitive and most-improved sides over the past few years and a lot of that is to do with their quality of players and the influence of head coach Joe Schmidt,” said the Scots’ incoming head coach, Gregor Townsend.
“They have shown real consistency over the past two or three years. They are one of the best teams in the world. Whichever side we drew from the top band was always going to be very tough.
“On the other hand, we know Ireland pretty well and have a couple more opportunities to play them before the World Cup, while we also know a lot about their players through the Guinness PRO12.”
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