Saturday 22 July 2017

Tony Ward: Praying we avoid the Pumas in Rugby World Cup draw

Scots the best-case opponents in World Cup draw for Schmidt's top seeds, but Pacific islanders lurk with intent

Rob Kearney knows the damage Argentina can do to Ireland’s World Cup hopes – above, he holds his head at the final whistle after defeat at the 2015 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Kearney knows the damage Argentina can do to Ireland’s World Cup hopes – above, he holds his head at the final whistle after defeat at the 2015 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The timing of tomorrow's World Cup draw in Kyoto is not ideal, coming more than two years before the tournament kicks off, but it's a reasonable compromise.

From a fairness point of view, I'd prefer to see the draw made further down the line, so that the seedings could reflect teams' standing closer to the competition, but common sense in terms of the logistics of running a global tournament - the third biggest in sport - has to prevail.

Despite the disappointment to losing twice on the road in the Six Nations, it has been another momentous season for Ireland, embracing wins over the Southern Hemisphere Big Three.

I'm not sure we fully appreciate the magnitude of that achievement, yet I understand the scepticism, given that we have never managed to reach a World Cup semi-final - Italy are the only other tier one nation in that bracket.

The 2015 draw (made in December 2012, when we had a Band 2 ranking) was good to us, with France the top seeds in our group, yet we blew it when under-performing - injuries allowing - against Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Hard-earned

This time around we are in Band 1, alongside New Zealand, Australia and England. For England and Ireland, it is a hard-earned promotion.

It means we avoid the current top three until the knockout stages.

Argentina have dropped into Band 3, with Samoa plummeting from Band 2 to having to qualify, along with Fiji and Tonga, for a place in Bands 4 or 5.

So what would represent the dream draw from an Irish perspective? Despite losing to both the Scots and Welsh in the Six Nations and beating the French (all in Band 2 along with South Africa this time around), I reckon one of our Celtic cousins would be the preferred option, along with anyone except Argentina from Band 3, and avoiding one of the pacific nations beyond that.

The nightmare draw? Ireland, South Africa, Argentina, Fiji and possibly Samoa (depending on the various islanders' ranking through qualification).

Having worked so hard to get into Band 1 it's time for us to get the rub of the green.

The alternative for World Rugby might have been to leave the draw until after the November Tests, England, Wales and Ireland would have been at a distinct disadvantage given the number of players they are supplying to the Lions tour.

In moving the draw a few months closer to the kick-off, compared with previous editions, the World Rugby Board has hit a fair compromise.

Of course, team form will fluctuate between now and September 2019.

For obvious reasons the longer the host nation can stay in the tournament the better - England's early exit from a 2015 pool that included the Wallabies, Welsh and Fijians did not help the tournament.

So fingers crossed for Japan in today's draw, although they are in Band 3.

Having toured Japan with Ireland in 2005 I can not think of a more appropriate or more deserving location for the ninth World Cup.

Next month's tour to Japan (Ireland's first since '05) and the Test in the US along the way could scarcely be better timed, with 11 Irish Lions already ruled out, plus the likes of Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose set to be on standby.

With the 2019 World Cup in mind, I am delighted that Joe Schmidt is not caught up in any Lions involvement. What a golden opportunity for a new generation of players to work with the head coach, and for the likes of Ronan O'Gara, Girvan Dempsey and Felix Jones to prosper as rookie coaches in that environment.

It is imperative Schmidt takes a fair whack of seasoned campaigners on tour, and with Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Ultan Dillane and Jamie Heaslip on the long-term injury list, that choice is fairly limited.

Opportunity knocks for the likes of Tiernan O'Halloran, Craig Gilroy, Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey, Joey Carbery, Rory Scannell, Luke McGrath, Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Jack O'Donoghue, Tommy O'Donnell, Niall Scannell and John Ryan.

And for rookies like Andrew Porter, James Tracy, Conor Oliver, Rory O'Loughlin, Adam Byrne, Sean O'Brien (Connacht), Ross Byrne, Darren Sweetnam and even Munster scrum-half Angus Lloyd, who really impressed against Connacht at the weekend, could this be their chance?

The quest begins now, but a tasty draw tomorrow would sure help.

Irish Independent

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