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Big challenges on the road to World Cup for Schmidt's Ireland boys

By Jonathan Bradley

Ireland were already chasing two historic firsts in their upcoming fixtures, but will now have the 2019 World Cup very much on their minds over the next 12 months.

After an announcement yesterday, Joe Schmidt's men will have just 12 games before the pool draw for the tournament in Japan.

Occurring slightly later than last time around, the draw will take place in May of 2017 with world rankings yet again to be used to determine seedings.

Those standings, some 29 months out from the tournament's first game, will therefore have a big impact on the quadrennial showpiece.

Ireland currently sit in seventh place meaning if the draw was to take place today, they would be in the second band of teams and be paired with just one of the other top eight.

However, they face a daunting fixture list over the next year as they look to at least maintain their place. They travel to South Africa this summer for a three-Test jaunt in a country where they have never beaten the Springboks.

In the autumn two huge games against New Zealand loom, one in Chicago and one in Dublin, with Ireland's record against the world champions reading played 28, drawn one, lost 27.

Wins against either would represent a historical achievement for Schmidt and his side.

The 2015 beaten quarter-finalists also take on Canada and Australia in November before a 2017 Six Nations featuring three away trips.

l The first SONI Community Rugby Champions Award will be handed out at tonight's Ulster Rugby Awards Dinner. Four worthy finalists have been nominated with the winner set to take a £1,000 bursary back to their club while each runner-up will net £500. The quartet up for the award are Grace Davitt of Cooke Women RFC, Ballymoney's Katie Speers, Ards' Stephen Nutt and Willie Gribben of Portadown.

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