The 2019 Rugby World Cup may be two years away but expectations ahead of the tournament were heightened Wednesday after the draw for the pool stages in Japan threw up a number of potential titanic battles.
Defending champion New Zealand and South Africa, winner in 1995 and 2007, have been set against each other in Pool B.
In another mouthwatering group, old enemies England and France were drawn alongside Argentina in a tough Pool C.
With the top two teams progressing automatically to the knockout stages from each group, neither the All Blacks or the Springboks should struggle to qualify from a pool which will also feature Italy and another two nations, determined when the qualification process is completed in 2018.
Japan, the first Asian country to host the tournament, are in Pool A with Ireland and Scotland, while two-time winner Australia will take on Wales and Georgia in Pool D.
The Rugby World Cup will be held from September 20 to November 2, 2019. At the draw in Kyoto, eight slots were allocated to the teams yet to qualify.
Pool A: Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Europe 1, play-off winner
Pool B: New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Africa 1, repechage winner
Pool C: England, France, Argentina, Americas 1, Oceania 2
Pool D: Australia, Wales, Georgia, Oceania 1, Americas 2
‘A special part of the world’
Three-time winner New Zealand and South Africa are familiar foes, having already played each other 93 times, with the All Blacks winning 55 of those matches.
The Springboks, ranked seventh in the world rankings, suffered the biggest surprise defeat in the sport’s history when Japan beat them in the pool stages of the 2015 World Cup in England.
But New Zealand coach Steve Hansen admitted everyone would “get excited” by the prospect of another All Black and Springbok battle.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said the New Zealander of the prospect of the Rugby World Cup being held in Japan.
“It’s a special part of the world and a unique culture. Rugby is developing here. It’s an exciting place to come to and we all wish it the best.”
‘It’s all very exciting’
Eddie Jones, England head coach, who was in charge of Japan when the Brave Blossoms overcame South Africa in Brighton in 2015, described the draw as “very exciting.”
England, Six Nations champions for the last two years but humiliated at the last Rugby World Cup when they became the first host nation to be eliminated in the group stages, have been drawn against two Tier 1 nations in the toughest group of all.
Jones’ men are ranked second in the world, while an improving France side are currently sixth and Argentina, twice semifinalists, are ninth.
The other two teams in the pool will be the North and South America qualifier, likely to be either USA or Canada, and the second-best Oceania qualifier — one of Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.
“We’ve got two Tests against Argentina in June so we can practice a little bit,” Jones told reporters in Kyoto.
“[France] are really improving and are certainly a dangerous team.”