World Cup Japan
The Webb Ellis Cup stands at Nijo Castle in ancient Kyoto on the eve of the Rugby World Cup draw in the Japanese city. Photograph: Dave Rogers/World Rugby via Getty Images
Even Phileas Fogg would have struggled had he been involved in modern-day rugby union. One day Warren Gatland is in London talking up the Lions, the next he is en route to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw. Next week he has to be back in Wales, the week after it is Ireland followed by a long wintry trek around New Zealand. If it is Wednesday, it must be Kyoto, in theory at least.
There will be precious little relaxation at 39, 000 feet either, if the pool draw takes on a deathly complexion once more. As Gatland observed: “Probably the team you don’t want to get is the All Blacks. Everyone else you wouldn’t mind.” He was smiling when he said it but pretty much every other international head coach below the top four seeds will be thinking likewise.
Even for England, who feature in the top tier alongside New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, the possibility of something very nasty is real. One of Scotland, France, South Africa or Wales will end up in their five-team pool, with Argentina, Japan, Georgia or Italy lurking in the tier below. England, South Africa, Argentina and Fiji in the same pool is one scenario; Scotland or Wales could find themselves in with the All Blacks and the Pumas, who will be no one’s idea of pushovers by 2019.
Eddie Jones, England’s head coach, is not the type to start fretting prematurely but as he has already observed, a World Cup in Japan will be tricky enough logistically without the threat of an early exit hanging over everyone for two long years. Stuart Lancaster’s 2015 squad thought they had every single base covered but nagging anxiety still caught up with them in the end.
If Jones could have his way he would probably choose the enemies about whom, psychologically, he knows virtually everything there is to know. As a technical adviser he played a significant role in South Africa’s successful 2007 World Cup campaign and his achievements with Japan last time around are the stuff of legend. Flip it around and ask which coach the Springboks and the Brave Blossoms would least prefer to pit their wits against? Jones has been around plenty of blocks and, on occasions like this, that has its advantages.