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Schmidt: Ireland's World draw is tougher than it looks

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Never one to give opposition coaches anything that could be considered bulletin board material, Ireland's Joe Schmidt was yesterday describing his side's 2019 World Cup draw as a "mixed bag".

Thanks to their fourth in the world ranking, however, in truth it was anything but as Ireland weren't far from a pool they would have hand-picked themselves with their tournament odds slashed by the bookies after being paired with Scotland, Japan and two of the yet to be determined qualifiers.

While predicting form two years out makes analysing the strength of the various pools something of a futile exercise, it is worth remembering too that both Scotland and Japan will have left yesterday's draw in Kyoto feeling hugely satisfied.

Scotland, of course, beat Ireland in their most recent meeting, a 27-22 triumph in Edinburgh to open this year's Six Nations Championship, although the men in green have traditionally had less trouble with their Celtic cousins than any of the other possibilities from band 2 - France, Wales and South Africa.

And while Japan will be buoyed by their role as hosts - the draw creates a tantalising possibility for Ireland of opening the tournament against the Brave Blossoms in Tokyo's 80,000-capacity new national stadium - Schmidt will have been relieved to avoid the team who have previously been the thorn in their side at this tournament, Argentina.

And with the two qualifiers most likely to be Romania and Tonga, Ireland seem set to be in a pool with just one side, in Scotland, to whom they have ever lost.

Having never made it to a semi-final, reaching their target of the last four still looks tricky, however, with either New Zealand or South Africa presumably lying in wait at the quarter-final stage, even if the latter's recent form would hardly give much of a worry.

Given the spectacle expected from Asia's first ever Rugby World Cup, the pairing with Japan, coached by Jamie Joseph, is one that excites Schmidt, especially given he will take a side missing his 11 Lions to the Land of the Rising Sun for two Tests next month.

"I think June is going to be very tough for us (now)," he said. "This draw will spark a real interest because people will want an entrée of what will be a main meal in two and a bit years' time.

"I've been watching the Sunwolves play (in the Super Rugby competition) recently, I thought their win over the Bulls was super and some of their stand-out players have really come on further and further. I think June will be complicated for us and I think that's probably a good indication of what will come in two years' time as well."

Nobody, of course, will ever forget now-England head coach Eddie Jones guiding Japan to a pool stage victory over South Africa at the last World Cup, with Schmidt believing they have continued to make strides under his successor, the former All Black flanker Joseph.

"I think the Japanese national team have really progressed in a short term, and even going back probably two or three years," he said.

"I've got a lot of respect for Jamie Joseph - he's a scary man! I think he'll bring a real energy to the group.

"I know some of his coaching staff, too. Together, they will be very, very effective in progressing the team further."

Scotland will be a very different looking side two years down the road, with Glasgow's Gregor Townsend looking to carry on from the work of Vern Cotter when he kicks off his reign with summer Tests against Italy, Australia and Fiji.

The man who guided Glasgow to the PRO12 title in 2015 was full of praise yesterday for the work being done by Schmidt with Ireland.

"The first reaction is one of excitement that we know which pool we'll be in," he said from Kyoto.

"The Rugby World Cup now comes into sharper focus for everyone and it looks, from the draw, like it's going to be another great tournament.

"It's a new venue for the World Cup and I'm sure there'll be a lot of interest in our pool draw, especially when we get there, because we're taking on the host country.

"The 2015 World Cup was a great tournament with some brilliant rugby played and I'm sure the next one in Japan will be even better.

"Ireland have been one of the most competitive and most-improved sides over the past few years and a lot of that is to do with their quality of players and the influence of head coach Joe Schmidt.

"They have shown real consistency over the past two or three years. They are one of the best teams in the world. Whichever side we drew from the top band was always going to be very tough.

"On the other hand, we know Ireland pretty well and have a couple more opportunities to play them before the World Cup, while we also know a lot about their players through the Guinness PRO12.

"Japan obviously made a memorable impact at the World Cup two years ago, beating South Africa, and will have tremendous support going into the tournament.

"They'll be targeting getting out of the pool and I'm sure that we'll see them play close to their best in every game.

"We know how dangerous they can be, having played them in the World Cup and on tour last year. The majority of our players who will feature in the next World Cup have already had that first contact with them and the style of rugby they aspire to play. It's likely they're going to continue to improve over the next few years.

"Playing the hosts makes it a bigger challenge but one we will relish. It's pretty much guaranteed that we'll play them in front of a sell-out crowd. That will be great motivation for our players."

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