RWC 19: Ireland could make quarter-finals in one piece this time
Analysis: Possible last eight meeting with Springboks would not faze Joe Schmidt’s side
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt with Japan’s head coach Jamie Joseph and Scott Johnson, the performance director of Scotland, at the Rugby World Cup 2019 pool draw in Kyoto. Photograph: Dave Rogers/AFP/Getty Images
Scotland, Japan . . .
Jamie Heaslip punched the air after seeing Ireland’s initial opponents come the 2019 World Cup.
“We are happy with it,” said the Ireland number eight, who is recuperating from back surgery. “There are tougher groups.”
Heaslip speaks the truth, and while Gregor Townsend will have noted his behaviour, Pool A remains a dream draw.
If the 2015 tournament rammed anything home it’s the need for a relatively non-attritional pathway if Ireland are to ever genuinely compete for the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Scotland and Japan snugly fit the bill. The Ireland v Wales game has been played at a murderous intensity these past few seasons. France always seek to bulldoze; viciously removing Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and (via slyer means) Seán O’Brien on that faithful evening in Cardiff two years ago.
A week later, in the latest glass ceiling quarter-final, Argentina’s hyper-speed approach reaped the benefits. That remains the only visible stain on Joe Schmidt’s stunningly impressive coaching resume.
Anyway, Les Bleus and Los Pumas are England’s problem now as that grouping looks more swamp than Pool.
The Springboks have not been avoided entirely but at least Schmidt can anticipate fielding some semblance of his best XV for the probable quarter-final.
South African rugby is so nakedly in a state of convalescence since Ireland’s other opponents, hosts Japan, picked them apart in an upset for the ages in 2015.
Since, the Springboks under Alistair Coetzee have gone from bad to embarrassing terrible, losing to Conor O’Shea’s Italy last November (a reunion of which will probably decide who follows the All Blacks into the knockout stages from Pool B). Repeated attempts have been made to lure Rassie Erasmus home from Limerick while Brendan Venter has been snatched away from the Azzurri. Come autumn 2019 Erasmus’s current three-year Munster deal will be cooked. He has clearly stated his desire to coach the Springboks and may well be back ensconced in the ailing system by that summer.
That’s bad news for everyone else. Even New Zealand.
But the Japanese rise should concentrate Irish minds for now. After all these groundbreaking days in the Schmidt era – back to back Six Nations titles, beating all three southern hemisphere sides in 2016 and guiding Ireland to fourth in the world despite retiring legends – the World Cup remains the rock every Ireland coach has crashed against.
It looks like Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms will have first swipe at them mere moments after the bright lights of the opening ceremony dim. Nothing short of an Ireland victory will be expected. Japan descended into their own turmoil ever since the treacherously unfair four-day turnaround from Brighton – where they felled the Boks – to Gloucester and a pumped up Scotland. The game ended in a 45-10 Japan loss with the journey being a microcosm of rugby’s world order.
The fixtures for 2019 will be revealed in September.
By then, Schmidt will have gathered all the intelligence he desires on the state of rugby in East Asia. Joseph, capped by the All Blacks and Japan in a time when all that was allowed, coached the Highlanders to the Super Rugby title in 2015, but his new role has been hindered by a disinterested player base.
“We’ve lost a lot of players to retirement and unavailability,” said Joseph last year. “The fame of the match against South Africa has paid its toll. Players aren’t as hungry or as motivated to play for Japan anymore.”
Beware: they almost caught Wales in November with a better indication of their status being the progress of the Sunwolves in Super Rugby.
“Their recent win over the Bulls was super,” said Schmidt yesterday. “Some of their standout players have really come on.”
Schmidt is being generous. The Japanese franchise has lost the other nine matches and the Bulls’ performances this year have further disgraced South African rugby.
However, a better indicator of the Sunwolves is evident in competitive defeats to the Cheetahs, Chiefs and Jaguares.
Anyway, a massive attitude change begins in June when their players combine under the national banner for the two-Test series against Ireland. Also, the highly rated Kiwi Tony Brown, previously a Leinster and Connacht target, arrives as Joseph’s assistant.
All of a sudden this tour looks like a hugely valuable excursion. For everyone involved.
Townsend’s Scotland should never surprise Ireland. There will be one bruising encounter, probably with the Tongans, but Ireland’s route to the unknown pleasures of a semi-final seems more realistic than ever before.