Thursday 23 November 2017

Schmidt and Ireland handed World Cup fixtures boost

Schmidt: Scotland opener in 2019. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Schmidt: Scotland opener in 2019. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When it comes to Rugby World Cup matters this week, there has been much to be said for the conservative policy of refusing to count chickens.

Just as the IRFU's quiet confidence in their ability to host the 2023 event was abruptly blindsided this week, Joe Schmidt's team will also be wary of wallowing in what seems like a benign fixture schedule on the field as they bid for their own bit of world domination in Japan 2019.

Still, while their 2015 campaign was compounded by a brutally physical conclusion to the pool stages, sapping them of both momentum and key players, the front-loading of the tougher fixtures this time around offers hope of a relatively smoother targeting of an historic debut semi-final.

Scotland and Japan are the key pool rivals but both fixtures are first up; the progress of the Scots under Gregor Townsend will be keenly observed until then and Japan, after a presumably less intense opening, will target Ireland in match two.

Ireland were undone by their inability to post back-to-back performances - with a settled, injury-free side - against France and then Argentina last time out.

Their stunted progress was also underpinned by the necessity of avoiding the All Blacks; a fear that should now have dissipated considering Ireland have finally removed this particular monkey from their backs.

Should Scotland cause an upset in the first game, New Zealand may await in the quarter-finals; if Ireland are to become the best in the world, they will need to beat the best at some stage and they would have the relative luxury of a month's planning should they have to lick opening-day wounds.

Ireland's opener against Scotland will be at 8.45am Irish time on September 22 at the International Stadium, Yokohama.

Six days later, they face Japan at 8.15am at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa; there are still Category A tickets available at €200 a pop if anyone fancies an impromptu holiday.

Minnows

The games against the as-yet-unqualified minnows from European qualification (probably Romania) and a play-off opponent (probably Samoa) will be in Kobe's Misaki Stadium on October 3 at 11.15am and the Hakatanomori Football Stadium, fully nine days later, on October 12.

Schmidt's main focus in those final two games will be how adeptly he manages to rotate his squad in anticipation of the knockout stages - more than likely against South Africa, rather than New Zealand - presuming Ireland top Pool A.

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend, who will visit Japan following the November international series, acknowledged the difficulty of their task against the favourites to top the pool.

"We'll face a real challenge in all of our games, starting with Ireland who are currently ranked fourth in the world.

"Facing Ireland in the opening round really focuses the mind on just how big a challenge this tournament is going to be, on top of the prospect of facing the hosts, who had a brilliant World Cup in 2015."

Meanwhile, England coach Eddie Jones reacted to the schedule by saying his side will have no excuses for failure.

Irish Independent

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