Ireland face battle to retain top eight status
Published 12/05/2016 | 02:30
We don't yet know if Joe Schmidt will lead Ireland to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but yesterday's news that the draw for that tournament would be made in 12 months' time means that he will certainly play a part in the campaign.
Between now and next May when the balls will be drawn from a hat to establish the pools, Ireland must negotiate one of the most difficult schedules they've ever faced while trying to retain their place in the top eight of the World Rugby rankings.
Dropping below eighth at the end of the next Six Nations would leave Schmidt's side third seeds in the draw and subject to the same kind of peril Wales found themselves in last year when they were drawn against England and Australia.
Ireland are currently ranked seventh after losing out on a third successive Championship in March.
Next month, they travel to South Africa for a three-Test series against the World Cup semi-finalists, before meeting champions New Zealand twice and Australia once in November.
After Christmas, they face a Six Nations schedule that sees them visit Edinburgh and Rome first, before France come to Dublin. Their last two games before the seeding is established come against Wales away on a Friday night and then England at home.
After the disappointing finish to last year's World Cup when Ireland came up short against to Argentina, Schmidt wants to test his team against the leading teams from the southern hemisphere on a more regular basis.
However, it leaves the New Zealander little wiggle room. The only opportunity for the head coach to experiment will come against Canada in November, although the two-Test tour of Japan during the 2017 Lions tour will also offer a chance to try new faces.
After facing criticism for hosting the last draw too early, World Rugby have moved the date back by six months and are likely to push it back further for the 2023 tournament.
"This is as far as we can move it for Japan so we give their ticketing programme the time to sell their tickets, before the (2020) Olympic (cycle) begins," chief executive Brett Gosper said. "We'll move that event as close to the World Cup for sure."
Ireland are vying with Italy and South Africa for the 2023 hosting rights and the IRFU's bid got a boost in recent weeks when the South African government banned its rugby union from hosting international tournaments.
However, Gosper believes that situation will be rectified soon.
"We're in dialogue with them. Obviously, we were a bit surprised to see that given their candidature and so on. But we believe, from the conversations we've had, that we can work through that," the Australian said.
"We're optimistic that they will be fine as a candidate and move forward in the process."
The game's governing body yesterday confirmed the election of former England international Bill Beaumont as chairman and ex-Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot as his vice chairman.
Top of their agenda in the coming months is establishing a global season.
As it stands, there are no agreements on the make-up of the rugby calendar beyond 2019, with major issues to be resolved between the northern and southern hemisphere unions as well as the professional clubs in England and France.
Everything is on the table, from moving the Six Nations to shifting the summer tours by a month or even cancelling them altogether.
While Beaumont played down the potential for conflict on the process and said he hoped for resolution by the end of the calendar year, there are major issues that must be addressed before agreement is reached.
The new chairman wants to put player welfare at the top of the agenda when the new schedule is being discussed, but he conceded that commercial imperatives are likely to drive the need to sort it out before the end of the year. "You'll probably find that the deadlines will be coming from unions who are signing off commercial deals," he said.
"They've to renew contracts and obviously when they're renewing contracts - whether it's a kit sponsor or a stadium sponsor, whatever, they want to know what you've got; what's your inventory.
"At the moment, we've got until 2019. That (the end of the year) is certainly very realistic, yeah. Without a doubt. Because I think there is a real will now to do it."
Whether there is real will to fix two other perceived problems in the game, the residency laws and the lack of top-class games for Tier Two countries, is questionable, even though Georgia, Romania and the United States were added to the World Rugby council with one representative each. Italy and Argentina joined the other tier one nations with two representatives.
While Pichot was fiercely critical of the laws that allow players to change country after three years in residence, Gosper said there was no will from the unions to make a change.
"If we see elements of an image erosion around the integrity of the game, it's something that will have to be addressed," he said. "Right now it is what it is and there is no immediate plan to review that."
Make or break: 12 vital matches
Ireland face a difficult schedule between now and the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw in May 2017
June 11, 2016: South Africa (A)
June 18, 2016: South Africa (A)
June 25, 2016: South Africa (A)
Nov 5, 2016: New Zealand (N)
Nov 12, 2016: Canada (H)
Nov 19, 2016: New Zealand (H)
Nov 26, 2016: Australia (H)
Feb 4, 2017: Scotland (A)
Feb 11, 2017: Italy (A)
Feb 25, 2017: France (H)
March 10, 2017: Wales (A)
March 18, 2017: England (H)
Current World Rankings
1 - New Zealand
2 - Australia
3 - South Africa
4 - England
5 - Wales
6 - Argentina
7 - Ireland
8 - France
9 - Scotland
10 - Japan
11 - Fiji
12 - Georgia