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Schmidt's Ireland get negotiable RWC19 pool but demanding quarter-final awaits

New Zealand or South Africa are the likely opponents if Ireland get through their pool.

IN TRUTH, THIS morning’s 2019 Rugby World Cup pool draw couldn’t really have gone better for Joe Schmidt and Ireland.

It would be a major shock if Ireland weren’t to advance into the quarter-finals, but then a probable tie against South Africa or New Zealand in the final eight awaits if they do get beyond the group.

Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt Schmidt and Ireland will have to be happy with their pool draw. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

While Eddie Jones’ England look towards a demanding Pool C also containing Argentina and France, Ireland will have to be happy to have drawn hosts Japan – who have never beaten them – and Six Nations rivals Scotland in Pool A.

The Scots have grown as a force under Vern Cotter and are likely to improve further under new boss Gregor Townsend, but there is less historical baggage there for Ireland than with other sides and Schmidt’s men are likely to approach that tie with confidence.

There are still two years until the 2019 tournament and much can change in that time – the Scots also beat Ireland this year, of course – but Schmidt is likely to be happier with Scotland in Ireland’s group than he would have been with South Africa, Wales and possibly even France.

Interestingly, Scotland are probably reflecting positively on having drawn the lowest-ranked of the top seeds in their pool. They will hope that the win over Ireland in Murrayfield can set a tone for future meetings.

The fact that Ireland play Japan over two Tests next month in Japan couldn’t have worked out better for the IRFU. Schmidt and his squad will get valuable experience of the country, travel demands there, and what Jamie Joseph’s team offer on the pitch.

Again, the Japanese are likely to develop under Kiwi boss Joseph – a 2015 Super Rugby winner with the Highlanders – over the next two years, but they have not beaten Ireland before and any defeat for Schmidt’s side would be a shock.

Tony Brown, one of the best coaches in New Zealand, will join Joseph as an assistant after this year’s Super Rugby campaign, further adding to the growth of the Brave Blossoms, who knocked off South Africa at the last World Cup.

Jamie Joseph Japan boss Jamie Joseph. Source: GettyDave Rogers/World Rugby Pool Images/INPHO

We can rest assured that Ireland won’t be taking anything for granted, but Joseph has already spoken about his frustration with the foundations he arrived into with Japan when he took up his role last year.

The Kiwi had expected to find much to build on after Eddie Jones’ tenure, but instead says Japan’s players “aren’t as hungry or as motivated to play for Japan any more.”

There is important work ahead for the tournament hosts, who will have an obvious advantage in being at home. Ireland might even be involved in the opening game of the tournament.

The other two teams drawn in Pool A along with top seeds Ireland are ‘Europe 1′ and ‘Play-off winner,’ who obviously have yet to qualify.

Right now, Romania lead the charge for that ‘Europe 1′ slot, although Spain are only two points behind them in the table, which will be decided by next year’s Rugby Europe Championship – though games against the already-qualified Georgia will not count.

Romania are currently ranked 16th in the world and the Spanish are 18th, indicating that Ireland would expect to beat both well. There is still some mathematical hope for Russia and Germany, but it would be a surprise to see them grab the ‘Europe 1′ spot.

As for ‘Play-off winner,’ there is a long way to go there, but the early money is on Tonga to fill this position.

That spot will be decided by a two-legged play-off between a European side – so one of Russia, Spain, Germany, Romania, Portugal or perhaps even Malta, Czech Republic, Hungary or Bosnia and Herzegovina [though those final four are rather unlikely]  - and an Oceania team – one of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Steve Mafi and Kieran Read Tonga are on the possibilities to feature in Ireland's pool. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

With Fiji and Samoa leading the way for Oceania qualification at the halfway point – they get two automatic slots – Tonga have work to do in this summer’s World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup if they are to make up the difference.

That said, it’s not insurmountable and the Pacific Nations Cup involves just two games, so Tonga could beat both Fiji and Samoa in July and qualify automatically.

Whichever Oceania nation ends up in the Play-off would be confident of beating the European team over two legs in June 2018 to secure the final spot in Pool A of the 2019 World Cup.

While Ireland’s pool certainly looks negotiable, things will get trickier after that if Schmidt’s men do advance.

Awaiting the winner of Pool A in the quarter-finals will be the runner-up of Pool B, which contains New Zealand and South Africa, as well as Italy, ‘Africa 1,’ and ‘Repechage winner’.

The presence of New Zealand as possible Pool B winners makes it all the more important that Ireland top their pool, with a clash against South Africa – still in poor condition under Allister Coetzee – more attractive as a quarter-final fixture.

Of course, sources in South Africa will tell you that Coetzee’s days in charge are numbered and that they hope to have a far more convincing head coach leading the Boks into the 2019 World Cup. It may even end up being a man who is amassing knowledge of Irish rugby as we speak.

There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge, of course, but a man as astute as Schmidt will be starting his planning for all of the above sooner rather than later.

Exciting times.

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Murray Kinsella

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