Has Christian Louboutin put the boot into Scotland’s Rugby World Cup hopes?
The reality of being in the third band of seeds for the 2023 Rugby World Cup hit home for Scotland on Monday when they were placed in Pool B with holders South Africa and bete noire Ireland.
Christian Louboutin, the legendary French shoe designer, was the main responsible for picking Scotland’s name out of the hat at the draw in Paris and in doing so, delivered a well-aimed boot to hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.
Qualifiers from the Asia/Pacific region - probably Tonga or Samoa - and Europe will complete the five-team group.
The Scots were always at risk of being handed a tough assignment due to a seeding system based on world rankings from the start of the year leaving them in the lowest band of qualified countries.
If the seeding had been based on current world rankings, Scotland would have been in the second band, ahead of Wales who ended up in the top group. However, the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on international rugby meant teams were banded on where they stood 11 months ago as some sides, including the Springboks, have not played in 2020.
Gregor Townsend’s side were eliminated in the pool stage at last year’s World Cup in Japan and now face an uphill battle to avoid a repeat in three years’ time. Losses in Yokohama to Ireland and the host nation scuppered Scottish hopes of a place in the last eight in 2019 but the draw for 2023 looks an even tougher prospect.
Townsend has been given the opportunity to lead the side into the tournament in France after signing a contract extension last week and will become the first Scotland coach since Ian McGeehcan in 2003 to take charge at a second World Cup.
Reacting to the Pool B draw, Townsend said it was the hardest of the four groups.
“There’s an excitement when you see the draw and you think ahead to Paris in three years’ time. I think it will be a wonderful tournament,” he said.
“And then there’s the reality of who you’re playing against. I believe it’s the toughest pool on current world rankings.
“South Africa are ranked first and are the world champions, Ireland are fifth and we’re seventh. So all three teams are in the top eight in the world. That means it’s going to be very competitive.
“When you see the draw there are no easy games. Likewise the teams still to qualify, whether it’s Tonga or Samoa who have a lot of quality players at their disposal.”
Scotland have beaten Ireland just once in their last ten meetings, a 27-22 victory in the Six Nations at Murrayfield in 2017. The Irish won as recently as a week past Saturday when they defeated the Scots 31-16 in Dublin in the Autumn Nations Cup third-place play-off. They also triumphed in this year’s Six Nations fixture 19-12 at the Aviva and were utterly convincing in putting Scotland to the sword 27-3 at the World Cup last September.
Those were chastening defeats for Townsend who has yet to taste victory over Ireland as Scotland head coach.
Now in the charge of Andy Farrell, Ireland have had a mixed year but remain a testing proposition.
Making a draw so far in advance of the tournament itself makes it difficult to predict anything with much certainty but South Africa’s World Cup pedigree makes them overwhelming group favourites, even at this early stage.
Their triumph over England in the final in Japan last year was a personal triumph for Rassie Erasmus who transformed the Springboks from underachievers to world champions in less than two years as head coach.
Erasmus returned to his role as director of rugby at the start of the year and was replaced as head coach by Jacques Nienaber who greeted the Pool B draw with a mix of diplomacy and incredulity.
“We’re really going to have to be on top of our game just to get out of this pool,” he said. “It’s funny to think that one of South Africa, Ireland or Scotland will not make it to the play-off stages. It’s going to be a tough pool but I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Nienaber will, hopefully, have a first-hand look at what the best of Ireland and Scotland have to offer next summer when the British & Irish Lions tour South Africa.
The composite side will play three Test matches against the Springboks and Townsend thinks it will be a valuable experience for the Scotland players, should any be selected.
“Hopefully we’ll have a number of players involved and gaining insight into how to take on South Africa and the strategies that will be deployed during that tour,” said the Scotland coach. “Playing Test match rugby against them will be a great experience for our players.
“The tour will be exciting for so many people involved in rugby. And for Scottish and Irish players the chance to play against the Springboks and maybe beating them will be very helpful for us as individual nations.”
Scotland have met South Africa twice before in the pool stage of the World Cup, losing 46-19 at Murrayfield in 1999 and 34-16 in Newcastle in 2015.
England, meanwhile, have been drawn in Pool D with Japan and Argentina, while Wales will face Australia and Fiji in Pool C.
Hosts France have the daunting prospect of taking on three-time world champions New Zealand in Pool A, a group which also contains Six Nations rivals Italy.
Les Bleus are moving at a rapid rate towards being major contenders for their home tournament having been revitalised under new head coach Fabien Galthie.
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