It could have been worse. That was the widespread feeling in the Ireland camp last night as the draw for the 2011 Rugby World Cup plumped Ireland with Australia and Six Nations rivals Italy.
For the first time in three tournaments, Ireland have missed facing the hosts at the pool stages — the daunting honour of playing New Zealand goes to France, who famously knocked the All Blacks out of the 2007 tournament at the quarter-final stages.
The draw of choice for Declan Kidney’s men would have been Argentina and Fiji, but the worst case scenario would have been landing New Zealand and Scotland, so in balance, their Pool C draw, which also includes two sides — Europe 2 (likely to be Georgia or Romania) and Americas 2 (Canada or USA) who have yet to qualify — is on paper much more agreeable than in the last two tournaments when Ireland’s pool opponents included Australia and Argentina and France and Argentina respectively.
The most eye-catching pool sees England and Scotland paired together along with Argentina. England and Scotland have met once before in World Cup history — a 1991 semi-final in Edinburgh that the red rose brigade shaded 9-6 before losing to Australia in the final.
England, though, look set to face the All Blacks in the quarter-finals unless they win their group.
Wales have been drawn with reigning world champions South Africa, Fiji - the team that knocked them out of last year's World Cup — Oceania 1 (probably Samoa) and Africa 1.
Scotland, world-ranked ninth to England's sixth, will not be too unhappy at the draw, given they could have been bracketed in the same pool as New Zealand and France.
The All Blacks' group, which also includes Tonga, Americas 1 and Asia 1, gives New Zealand a chance to avenge their shock 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat against Les Bleus in Cardiff.
Reigning RBS 6 Nations champions Wales were the only northern hemisphere side to beat Tri-Nations opposition this autumn, defeating Australia 21-18 in Cardiff on Saturday.
After failing to emerge from the 'group of death' last autumn, the make-up of their pool for New Zealand in three years time comes as something of a relief.
But Ireland coach Declan Kidney refused to dismiss the minnows and is determined to build a squad that will survive what he views as a gruelling schedule.
“If it's Georgia or Romania they will be coming at us hard," he said.
"Being ranked second will make
us the target team for the other sides in the pool. They'll be looking to have a go at us.
"This draw is a fantastic way to start the competition but the World Cup is so far away that it's impossible to say who will be around or involved.
"We have played against Australia in World Cups before and Italy being in the group will add spice to our Six Nations matches over the coming three years.
"But tournament rugby is so different to competitions like the Six Nations because there are a lot of games in a short period of time.
"We need to build a squad in the Six Nations. Every match is physical at the World Cup so we need to be prepared for that."
Ireland and Australia have met on four occasions at the World Cup, most memorably a dramatic 19-18 quarter-final victory for the Wallabies at Lansdowne Road in 1991.
Following the draw, bookmakers Ladbrokes installed Ireland as 50/1 outsiders to win the Webb Ellis trophy, while Declan Kidney’s side Ireland are priced at 7/2 to win their pool and 1/9 to make the knock out stages.
Commenting, Donal McCarthy, PR and Communications Director, Ladbrokes Ireland said;
“We saw from the last Rugby World Cup that expectations can run high in the run up to the competition, but its reasonable for fans to expect a place in the knock-out stages this time around."
Held inside a giant Tourism New Zealand rugby ball next to Tower Bridge, the draw was carried out by Rugby World Cup chairman Bernard Lapasset and New Zealand World Cup chairman Jock Hobbs.
"This is an outstanding draw for our role as organisers with so many exciting match-ups across each of the pools," said Rugby New Zealand 2011 chief executive Martin Snedden.
"Rugby fans around the world will now be analysing their team's pool and, we hope, will want to be there to see the contests unfold.
"It is an exciting day for rugby fans, as it makes Rugby World Cup 2011 that much more tangible.
"They now know who their team is up against, and what they need to do to advance to the knockout stages.
"It's also an important day for our ongoing preparations for the tournament.
"We've had 18 regions from across New Zealand express interest in hosting matches or teams, and the draw allows us to move the match and team allocation process forward.
"Over the next few months, we will be working closely with Rugby World Cup Limited to take the 40 pool matches that the draw has thrown up and allocate them to venues around New Zealand."
Decisions on match venues, as well as the match schedule, are expected to be announced in March or April next year. Team bases will be revealed in late 2009.