Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend admits the excitement of the 2023 World Cup draw was swiftly tempered by being placed in the “toughest pool” alongside South Africa and Ireland.
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.
Townsend’s men were eliminated at the end of the pool stage during a dismal display at last year’s tournament in Japan and now face an uphill battle to avoid a repeat in three years’ time.
South Africa top the rankings and are the reigning world champions, while Scotland hold a miserable recent record against the Irish.
Qualifiers from Asia/Pacific and Europe will complete the five-team group.
“There’s an excitement that you see the draw and you think ahead to Paris in three years’ time – I think it will be a wonderful tournament,” said Townsend.
“And then there’s the reality of who you are going to play against. I believe it’s the toughest pool.
“On current world rankings – Ireland are ranked fifth in the world, South Africa are ranked first, they are the world champions, and we’re ranked seventh – all three teams are in the top eight in the world, which means it is going to be very competitive.”
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.
Townsend, who last week extended his contract until the World Cup, added: “I feel very honoured to be given that extension. I love working with this group of players and the staff we have and it does get you looking forward to a big tournament.
“There is that long-term focus of developing a team and a squad that can play its best rugby in 2023.”
Ireland have won 20 of their previous 25 meetings with Scotland, including at last year’s World Cup, plus Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup victories this year.
Head coach Andy Farrell believes the draw has given Ireland and Scotland’s players further incentive to play their way into contention for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
“There’s nothing better than a Rugby World Cup draw to get the juices flowing, so super excited,” said Farrell.
“If Jacques (Nienaber, Springboks coach) is saying they will have to play some good rugby to get out of the group, I’m sure that me and Gregor are thinking the same as well.
“With the Lions tour, what an opportunity for the Scots and for the Irish boys to put their hand up during this Six Nations and get on that tour and learn all about what it’s like to take the world champions on in their own backyard.
England, beaten finalists in 2019, 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.
He said: “We think the team will be ready for the competition. We think they are preparing their finest rugby for the World Cup. It’s going to be a tough group.
“It’s going to be a big opponent for us, in front of our supporters, our family. It’s going to be a very exciting moment for us.”
All Blacks coach Ian Foster said: “World Cups are very special events and there are no such things as easy pools.
“To have France in our pool, I think it’s going to be very special. We’ve watched with admiration the way they are rebuilding their team.”