Draw gives Ireland good opportunity to proceed but topping pool looks essential
New Zealand will take heart from having beaten Tonga (in the pool stages) and Argentina (in the quarter-finals) en route to reaching their Holy Grail on home soil last year in a group which may also feature Georgia and Namibia.
Ireland’s remaining pool opponents from the fourth and fifth bands have still to be decided. The qualifying campaign, which started in Mexico earlier this year, features another 80 nations playing 184 matches around the globe and the most likely teams to fill Pool D are Romania or Russia, as the second European qualifiers behind Georgia, and the best Americas’ qualifier, where Canada are fancied above the USA Eagles.
One takes Declan Kidney’s point that given the failure to reach the quarter-finals in 1999 and 2007, Ireland shouldn’t lose the run of themselves.
There is also the point that Warren Gatland makes, namely that New Zealand have often not been helped by sauntering through the group stages against an amalgam of second string XVs or second-rate rugby nations to then run into a more match-hardened team in the quarter-finals.
It’s also worth noting, as Gatland did, that the eventual two finalists in each of the last two World Cups came from the same pool.
The critical order of matches and venues won’t be finalised for another 18 months or so, and the political manoeuvrings in Pool A will be especially intriguing. Hosts and organisers will assuredly want England to host both Australia and Wales in a large English venue, ie preferably Twickenham or perhaps Wembley or the Olympic Stadium.
For commercial reasons, the organisers may well see value in having a few games in Cardiff, and with Scotland off the agenda, the one other game guaranteed to sell out the Millennium Stadium would be Wales against Australia. But this raises the distinctly unfair prospect of the top seeds and two-time winners Australia having to play both England and Wales away in their respective lairs.
As last year’s World Cup in New Zealand highlighted, one of the few spin-offs from Ireland returning to waves of emigration is that the ever-swelling Irish diaspora commercially commands big venues. (And heaven knows how much more the expanse of Irish “hotspots” will have been swelled in the intervening three years).
It is therefore more than conceivable that Ireland will meet say, France, in one of the three big London venues and, say, Italy, in one of Britain’s many Irish hotspots, such as the 77,000-capacity Old Trafford in Manchester. That there might be more overseas visitors than natives in the ground would assuredly make it just like a normal home game there too, no?