Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Ireland get World Cup short straw

Joe Schmidt's Ireland team will need to play three games in 13 days if they are to reach the World Cup semi-final
Joe Schmidt's Ireland team will need to play three games in 13 days if they are to reach the World Cup semi-final

Ireland's supporters will have to burn a hole in their pockets to follow the team at the 2015 World Cup.

And if they make a historic World Cup semi-final, newly appointed coach Joe Schmidt and his squad may have to pay a high price to get there as well.

If Ireland thought they had achieved a rub of the green in last December's World Cup draw, yesterday's release of the schedule for the 2015 tournament will certainly disabuse them of that notion.

Declan Kidney won't be there, but having bequeathed his successor, Schmidt, a top-eight ranking by the skin of his teeth and a pool draw without any representative of world rugby's big three, Ireland's timetable is still a pretty arduous one.

When reflected through the prism of what Pool D favourites, France, have to endure, Schmidt's side have certainly been given the dirtier end of the stick by World Cup organisers.

Presuming Ireland can emerge from this season's temporary dip in historical results against the Italians, the men in green will need to play three games in 13 days if they are to reach the World Cup semi-final for the first time in their history.

And although the venues are accessible for Irish fans, the prices may not be – World Cup organisers may have to hike already expensive average prices of €84 even higher and many tickets for Irish games will cost at least €100.

A number of factors will cause price hikes – chiefly the need to recoup the £80m bond paid to the IRB to stage the competition, but also the refusal ofOld Trafford to allow it to be used for the tournament and also Wembley's unavailability for some of the tournament due to NFL activity.

Yesterday's release of the schedule, which will see Ireland remain in the familiar surrounds of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium should they reach the last eight, offers Schmidt's side a punishing conclusion to their Pool D campaign.

France will have 10 days to prepare for their final group clash against Ireland after playing one of the American qualifiers in their penultimate outing when, one presumes, they can rest much of their first-team squad.

In stark contrast, Ireland will have only a week to prepare for the potentially pool defining clash against the French – a repeat of the fixture in the 2007 tournament when France prevailed on home soil.

What makes Ireland's task exceedingly more difficult, however, is the fact that their penultimate pool game is against Italy, the side whose success against Ireland only two months ago ended Kidney's reign.

Hence Schmidt's urgent need, beginning with this summer's North American tour, is to prioritise the identification of talented back-up resources such that Ireland can afford to rotate should they make the knock-out stages.

For it will be virtually impossible to play the same XV for three games against quality international sides in such a limited space of time, particularly on what are expected to be heavy, autumnal pitches.

Ireland's clash with Italy will be played in the 54,000-seater Olympic Stadium while the game against the European qualifier will take place in Wembley, which will boast a 90,000 capacity, the highest of the tournament.

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium will have a capacity of 74,000 for the tournament.

With all of Ireland's matches taking place on weekends, organisers will be anxious that the proximity of venue will allow them to shift all of the expensive tickets that are due to go on sale next year.

Following the withdrawal of Old Trafford, only two rugby stadia will be used in the World Cup and more than half of the matches will take place in the south of England or Wales.

Twelve teams have already qualified for the finals – Australia, England and Wales in Pool A, South Africa, Samoa and Scotland in Pool B, New Zealand, Argentina and Tonga in Pool C and France, Ireland and Italy in Pool D.

Each pool will be made up of five teams, meaning there are eight places to be filled via a series of qualifying matches which will be concluded in 2014.

England will need to sell nearly three million tickets to underwrite the £80m paid to the IRB in order to host the tournament.

The Millennium Stadium will stage two quarter-finals and the Olympic Stadium the Bronze final, with the remaining knock-out games atTwickenham. Five of the seven knock-out games are at Twickenham.

England will open the competition, most likely against Fiji, on September 18 with holders New Zealand kicking off their defence against Argentina two days later.

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