Duncan Smith looks at Scotland’s 2019 World Cup draw and what chance this gives Gregor Townsend’s men of having a stellar tournament
New coach Gregor Townsend was quick to emphasise his “excitement” with Scotland’s 2019 Rugby World Cup draw but there must have been an element of relief too as the big guns were avoided in Kyoto.
On the face of it, Ireland were probably the best of the top seeds to get when compared with New Zealand, England and Australia. That said, though, the bookies were quick to install the Irish as firm favourites to win Pool A and, while the Scots have the warm memory of a win over the men in green at BT Murrayfield in this year’s Six Nations, the overall head-to-head between the nations this century does not make pretty reading.
But Townsend’s men will travel to Japan hoping to win the group, not least because the runners-up will likely face the three-time champions and holders All Blacks in the quarter-finals, which makes the mouth-watering meeting with the hosts just as important as the clash of the top two seeds.
On that front, the draw could have been kinder in the third pot. It was certainly good to avoid Argentina, who knocked Scotland out of both the 2007 and 2011 tournaments, but matches against Italy or Georgia might have been more appealing than facing a fired up host nation.
In terms of spectacle it promises to be a fantastic occasion and it places Scotland right at the heart of the tournament. It will be only the third time they will have faced a host nation on foreign soil, following quarter-final defeats to New Zealand in 1987 and Australia in 2003.
Scotland, of course, have plenty of recent experience against the Brave Blossoms, beating them three times in the past two years. However, they were run close in the two tour Tests in Toyota and Tokyo last summer and the pool stage 45-10 win over Eddie Jones’s team in Gloucester during the 2015 World Cup does come with an asterisk.
Japan went into that game just three days after stunning the rugby world with a 34-32 win over the Springboks in Brighton, while Vern Cotter’s men were fresh for their first game of the tournament.
With more than two years still to go, it is likely that Japan, now coached by former All Black Jamie Joseph, will continue to improve and Scotland can be sure it will be one helluva game when they run out to take them on.
The two TBC slots in Pool A look to have been kind to Scotland too. The last thing Townsend would have wanted is dangerous floaters like Oceania frontrunners Fiji or Samoa, the latter of which came within a whisker of halting the Scots’ run to the quarters in Newcastle back in 2015, lurking down in one of the bottom two seeds.
As it is, Scotland will face the winners of the European qualification process, which is currently led by Romania, but with the likes of Spain, Russia and Germany also in the mix. There could still be a South Sea flavour to complete Pool A as the third-placed team in Oceania, probably Tonga, will face the second best Europeans in a cross-continental play-off.
Elsewhere, it looks like England have got it tough again, with France, Argentina and likely a Fiji or Samoa in their Pool C, while Wales are up against their bogey team Australia.
Unlike with the football World Cup, the rugby equivalent’s draw takes place so far from the start of tournament that it makes predictions foolhardy. England are a far better team now than they were in 2015 but will they still be at their current state of excellence in two years’ time? How will Scotland progress under Townsend in the lead up to Japan? South Africa are in a slump but will they recover and pose any kind of threat to New Zealand in Pool B and will the All Blacks still be the world’s undisputed dominant side?
A fascinating couple of years lie ahead with what looks set to be a sensational World Cup waiting at the end of the road.