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Group of death is the fear for Ireland in 2023 Rugby World Cup draw after rankings slump

Last year's No 1 side pay price for defeats in Japan as pools are decided today

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Down and out: The All Blacks celebrate a try by Aaron Smith against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final last year

Down and out: The All Blacks celebrate a try by Aaron Smith against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final last year

Down and out: The All Blacks celebrate a try by Aaron Smith against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final last year

Ireland's World Cup fate lies in the hands of an Oscar-winning actor, a best-selling photographer, a leading ballet dancer, a three-Michelin Star chef, a renowned architect and shoe-designer Christian Louboutin.

Today, at 11.30am these leading lights of French culture will draw names from the hat to decide the pools for a tournament that kicks off in 33 months' time.

As ever, World Rugby is making its draw ridiculously early because of the need to identify venues, team bases and to give themselves a long lead-in time for selling tickets.

Due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the season, the seedings are effectively based on performances during the last World Cup cycle and performance in Japan, and that means Andy Farrell's side are in with the second seeds on the back of Ireland's loss to the hosts and their quarter-final exit at the hands of New Zealand.

Considering they went into the tournament as the world's No 1 team, it's a disappointing place to be and it means they will face one of South Africa, New Zealand, England or Wales in their pool.

After the autumn they've just endured, everyone will be hoping for Wayne Pivac's team.

Ireland have never played England or South Africa at a World Cup and they last faced the All Blacks in the pool stage in 1995.

While they'd back themselves against any opposition, and will be thankful they can't draw France, who are also second seeds, Ireland will be crossing their fingers that they can avoid a nightmare scenario.

With Argentina, Scotland and Fiji lurking in pot three, there's real potential for a very difficult pool.

Not that the dream draw always works out in your favour.

Four years ago, Jamie Heaslip famously punched the air when Ireland drew Japan and Scotland and, unfortunately, by the time the tournament rolled around he'd been forced to retire and Jamie Joseph had turned the Brave Blossoms into a force capable of derailing Joe Schmidt's side.

When that draw was made in Kyoto, Rassie Erasmus was still the Munster coach and Allister Coetzee was in charge of a tanking Springbok outfit.

By the time we made it to Yokohama in November 2019, Erasmus was leading his nation to their second tournament win.

So, even though Wales are a shadow of their former selves right now there's nothing to say they won't get their act together in the intervening period with three Six Nations, a Lions tour, a summer tour and two November windows to fine-tune game-plans and bring through players.

Farrell began that process in a Covid-disrupted 2020, using 41 players and handing out 11 debuts.

While he said the Six Nations will see a tightening of that process, the drawbridge will remain down for the likes of Ryan Baird, Harry Byrne and Craig Casey to come in and strengthen the squad.

Remember that in the last World Cup cycle, Joe Schmidt capped James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter while the Lions were in New Zealand and added Jordan Larmour in the 2018 Six Nations. Jean Kleyn was parachuted in at the last minute, while stalwart Devin Toner was cruelly jettisoned at the 11th hour.

In a parallel universe, this draw would be taking place at Dublin's Convention Centre and we'd be relishing the prospect of welcoming the world to our shores in 2023.

Instead, Bernard Laporte delivered the tournament for France and it's a return to the venue where Ireland's worst World Cup memories lie.

For all that Japan went off the rails, nothing matches the pre-quarter-final exit in Lens in 1999 or the pool exit eight years later when the golden generation failed to fire.

That team faced a tough draw in France and Argentina, but it was nearly losing to Georgia and Namibia that set the alarm bells ringing.

The bottom two tiers of teams in the tournament won't be decided for some time as the qualification process gets under way.

And, given the lack of depth in the sport, the identity of those teams won't be of huge concern, although perhaps Ireland won't want to see Georgia for some time after they caused such problems at the Aviva Stadium recently.

Farrell has been involved in three World Cups. He was part of the England squad that reached the final in 2007, was assistant to Stuart Lancaster when they crashed out of their home tournament in 2015 and was Schmidt's defence coach in 2019.

He knows all about the pitfalls and what can happen.

Losing heavily to South Africa in the opening game of 2007 led to the English players taking over and almost beating the Boks in the final.

Drawing Wales and Australia proved too much in 2015 and the easy draw for Ireland turned out to be a nightmare four years later.

So, he'll approach it with an open mind and has plenty of time to prepare for what's coming.

Drawing England, New Zealand or Wales makes life difficult, but not impossible. Avoiding Argentina would be preferable.

For now, it's in the hands of a group of six French cultural icons.

2023 WORLD CUP DRAW

BAND 1: South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales.

BAND 2: Ireland, Australia, France, Japan.

BAND 3: Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, Italy.

BAND 4: Oceania 1, Europe 1, Americas 1, Asia/Pacific 1.

BAND 5: Africa 1, Europe 2, Americas 2, Final Qualifier.

Dream Draw: Wales, Ireland, Italy.

Nightmare scenario: England, Ireland, Argentina.

Belfast Telegraph


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