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Dublin: 3°C Wednesday 12 May 2021

Another quarter-final exit? Ireland's World Cup draw isn't straightforward

New Zealand or hosts France look likely to be waiting in the quarter-finals.

Dejected Ireland fans after last year's quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.
Dejected Ireland fans after last year's quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

TO BE THE best, you’ve got to beat the best.

Even if Ireland just want to get past a quarter-final for the first time, they might have to beat the best in 2023.

No one knows what will happen between now and the World Cup in France but today’s pool draw does confirm that Ireland’s aim of reaching a first-ever semi-final isn’t going to be straightforward.

World Cups are now supposed to be easy, of course, and it’s worth remembering that Ireland’s pool draw alongside Japan and Scotland for last year’s tournament was seen as favourable. Things didn’t work out too well in that sense as the Brave Blossoms pulled off a shock win over Joe Schmidt’s side to rock the competition.

In 2023, Ireland will face headline challenges in Pool B from the reigning champions, South Africa, and Six Nations rivals Scotland.

The Springboks haven’t played since their final win over England last year but have a visit from the Lions to look forward to in 2021 and are sure to be among the contenders in 2023 again. 

Ex-Ireland international Felix Jones is part of their coaching staff and head coach Jacques Nienaber underlined today that the former Munster man will be “massive” in their preparations for the World Cup.

Of course, Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus are also ex-Munster coaches, so have insights into Irish rugby.

While Ireland have beaten Scotland twice this year and have a fine record against them, including a convincing pool-stage victory in Japan last year, Gregor Townsend’s men have been improving more recently. 

south-africas-felix-jones-celebrates Felix Jones helped the Boks to World Cup glory last year.

The other two teams in Ireland’s pool have yet to be confirmed. 

‘Asia/Pacific 1′ looks almost certain to be either Samoa or Tonga. Those Pacific Island nations are due to face off in a home-and-away qualifying battle next year, with the winner advancing directly into Pool D at the World Cup as ‘Oceania 1′.

The loser have a home-and-away play-off against the winners of the 2021 Asia Rugby Championship and will be strong favourites to win that and fill the ‘Asia/Pacific 1′ slot in Ireland’s pool.

‘Europe 2′ is due to be filled by the runner-up in a combined table for the 2021 and 2022 Rugby Europe Championships. With Georgia heavy favourites to top that table, the likes of Portugal, Spain, Russia, and perhaps Romania will likely be competing for the ‘Europe 2′ place.

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Getting out of the pool is one thing but a major challenge will await Ireland in the quarter-finals if they can do so, given that they would likely face either the All Blacks or hosts France.

The winners and runners-up from Pool B are set to face off against teams from Pool A in the quarter-finals in 2023. 

Pool A contains New Zealand and France, who will be firm favourites to see off challenges from Italy, ‘Americas 1′, and ‘Africa 1′.

France have been a much-improved team under Fabien Galthié in 2020 and are still a young squad. It seems likely that key players will have gained notable Test experience by 2023, while the depth of talent emerging in the Top 14 and for the France U20s in recent years is a little frightening for other nations.

Indeed, many are already tipping France for trophy success on home soil in 2023.

andy-farrell It will be fascinating to see how Ireland shape up in 2023. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Meanwhile, it seems probable that the All Blacks will be a force again by the time the World Cup rolls around, even if they have had a relatively mixed 2020 under new head coach Ian Foster.

Anyone who has watched Super Rugby Aotearoa or the Mitre 10 Cup from New Zealand this year will appreciate that there is plenty more talent to add to the All Blacks’ already strong squad if they are to shake things up between now and 2023.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what shape Ireland will be in by then. It could be that a 38-year-old Johnny Sexton has proven the doubters wrong and is ready to lead his country into the tournament in France.

Or perhaps the likes of Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Harry Byrne, Thomas Ahern and Gavin Coombes will have made it a very different looking Ireland side. 

Head coach Andy Farrell’s contract brings him right through to the next World Cup and it will be fascinating to see how he maps out Ireland’s development between now and then.

There’s lots of work to do if Ireland are to finally break their quarter-final ceiling.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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