Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling remains as impenetrable looking as ever after the draw for the 2023 tournament pitted them against the reigning champions South Africa and Scotland in the pool stages. Worse still, if Ireland do emerge from Pool B, they will then most likely face the three-time winners New Zealand or the second-favourites and hosts France in the last eight.
In the 10th edition of the draw, it will be actually Ireland’s first ever meeting in the tournament with the Springboks, who have won the William Webb Ellis trophy three times, and that is in just seven attempts.
Ireland have met Scotland twice, losing 24-15 at Murrayfield in a 1991 pool decider and winning the countries’ pool opener in Yokohama last year by 27-3.
“South Africa will be delighted with Ireland and Scotland. It’s another World Cup quarter-final for them anyway,” quipped Brian O’Driscoll soon after the draw when interviewed on the World Rugby website, and that certainly seemed to reflect the initial South African reaction on social media.
Famously now, of course, in his team talk before their semi-final against Wales, the man who guided the Springboks to their third World Cup, Rassie Erasmus, informed his players that Wales are not like Ireland, whom he described as “f***ing soft”.
Ireland also drew a relatively short straw from band 4 in the shape of Asia/Pacific 1, which will be Tonga or Samoa, as well as Europe 2, which quite possibly could be Russia, on the basis that Georgia will be Europe 1.
O’Driscoll ventured that the quality of pools grows stronger with each tournament, as evidenced by the quality of teams in the third band - Italy, Scotland, Fiji and Argentina. Irish fans will probably be grateful to avoid Los Pumas.
In the absence of a so-called Pool of Death, as a country grouped in the second band of seeds, it could have been a worse draw, ie Pool D with England and Argentina, or seemingly better, ie Pool C with Wales and Fiji.
Instead, Wales and Australia have been drawn together for the third World Cup in a row, ensuring an eighth meeting, along with Fiji, while England, Japan and Argentina are in Pool D.
Certainly the popular perception will be that Ireland and Scotland will clash in something of a pool eliminator. “You look at how Scotland are progressing now under Gregor Townsend. If they can keep some of their key players fit they are a handful,” said O’Driscoll.
“We’ve got a great rivalry against them. There’s no love lost between the teams and Ireland have had the ascendancy in the head to head in more recent times but we haven’t managed to properly deliver in a World Cup yet so the pressure will continue to be on to, first of all, get out of that pool and get to a quarter-final and then ultimately to get to the elusive semi-final.”
World Rugby have confirmed that if Ireland do emerge from Pool B, they will face the winners or runners-up from Pool A, which will almost certainly be New Zealand and France.
In terms of reaching a first ever World Cup semi-final therefore, the draw could simply not have been tougher.
The biggest gasp was when New Zealand were placed in the same pool as the France in Pool A, thus ensuring another clash between the tournament favourites and second favourites-cum-hosts.
This will also revive some rich memories of previous meetings in this competition. This will be their eighth at the World Cup, dating back to the inaugural final in 1987, and also taking France’s quarter-final wins in 1999 at Twickenham and 2007 in Cardiff, albeit their most recent was the All Blacks’ 62-13 evisceration of Les Bleus at the 2015 quarter-finals in Cardiff.
Pity the poor Italians, who yet again have been handed an absolute brute of a draw in this same pool, every bit as daunting as being permed in the same group as the All Blacks (albeit the game was cruelly cancelled) and the Springboks last year.
To put Ireland’s task further into context, the Springboks have won 36 and lost seven of their 43 World Cup games, for an impressive win percentage of 83.72 per cent.
"We are obviously excited about the draw today, and although the Rugby World Cup in France is still almost three years away, it's good to have an end-goal to work towards," said Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber, formerly the Munster defence coach.
“To be in the same pool as Ireland and Scotland will be a massive challenge, but to win the tournament, you have to be able to beat all the teams and we will be properly tested in the pool phases. We saw last year the margin for error - even during the pool stages - at any Rugby World Cup is very small.
“Take for instance our situation where we simply had to win every single pool game after our loss to the All Blacks in Japan, to ensure we qualify for the knockout stages.
“If you look at the countries in the top three bands, I would say each one of those teams is capable of beating another on any given day, proven by a team such as Japan, who have made huge strides in recent years.”
Four years ago, Ireland had what seemed like a good pool draw, being pitted against Japan and Scotland in the pool stages but, of course, the worst quarter-final draw possible, namely the back-to-back champions New Zealand, who beat Ireland 46-14 in the quarter-finals in Tokyo last October, or as it transpired the eventual winners South Africa. The two southern hemisphere superpowers have each won three of the previous nine World Cups.
Twelve of the 20 competing teams have qualified for the tournament in 2023, namely the top three countries in each pool last year. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the seedings were based on the world rankings of January 1st this year before the start of the disrupted Six Nations. The other eight teams will emerge from regional qualifying competitions.
Dates and kick-off times will be finalised next February for the game’s showpiece, which will run from September 8th to October 21st, with tickets going on sale from next March.
Final qualifier winner