Ireland U-20s’ injury toll raises player welfare concerns

Congested fixture schedule in Argentina meaning injuries are mounting up

The vista post matchday three at the World Under-20 Championship in Argentina is a familiar one as two more Ireland players are invalided out of the tournament; Noel McNamara's charges are averaging 2.46 injuries per game.

Sale Sharks academy flanker Ciarán Booth (knee) and his fellow backrow, David McCann (concussion), will tread a well worn path, following Iwan Hughes, Sean French, Stewart Moore and John Hodnett in being repatriated prematurely.

Booth suffered his injury when winning a turnover at a ruck on in the Italian match. He was struck from the side in an attempted clearout.

McCann was 18 years of age on the day of the match – he celebrated his 19th birthday on Wednesday – and therefore subject to a different set of criteria where there is a longer defined period of rest before a player who suffered a head injury can begin the return to play protocols. As a result he’s been sent home.

Last year the Irish Under-20s lost approximately 18 players of an extended Irish squad to injury during the course of the season, from the opening game of the Six Nations through to the final match of Under-20 World Championship in France; not all were on national duty, a few were laid low in club games.

It was a significant and alarming toll, one that the IRFU recognised in curtailing the match minutes permitted for squad members this season.

Six Irish players have returned home, another six, David Hawkshaw, Harry Byrne, Conor Phillips, Brian Deeny, Martin Molony and Scott Penny would have been in Argentina but for injuries.

Despite the better husbandry the injury profile remains a concern. Deeny (ankle ligaments) may yet travel to the World Cup providing he can prove his fitness. A decision on reinforcements will be confirmed in the next 24-hours.

World Rugby should recognise that the tournament's fixture schedule and size of the squads, 28 players, three less than the numbers allowed for the World Cup in Japan, a tournament played over seven weeks, are not fit for purpose if player welfare is a primary concern.

There are two matches remaining, starting with a game against England in the fifth to eighth place semi-final in Rosario on Monday (7.30pm Irish time). It’s the third meeting this season with Ireland having won the previous two, in the Six Nations and the opening pool match in Argentina.

Extremely tough

Ireland team manager Hendrik Kruger admitted that physical wear and tear on the players had been considerable and that the focus now was trying to facilitate the recovery process on a day when the squad and management undertook a two-hour bus journey from Santa Fe to Rosario.

"It's been extremely tough on the players. The last 20 minutes in the Italy game you could see the physical toll on both teams. The rain forecast didn't show up and it was very close and warm during the match, more so than any other point during the day.

"When you look at the performance against Australia, a big, physical team and the circumstances of that match, I thought we did really well to beat Italy. The players showed a lot of character."

The players are likely to be in recovery mode for 48-hours post match before they set foot on the training pitch. Beating Italy, following an earlier victory over England, means that some of the pressure has been removed in that Ireland cannot end up in the relegation match as they did last season when they beat Japan to preserve their elite status.

It may allow McNamara to give a number of players an opportunity to start while retaining a skeleton of experience. Flanker Ronan Watters (head) should be back in the selection mix. The same desire that has driven the group all season remains.

Kruger explained: “The players are fiercely determined; it’s an international match and they want to win. They’re tired mentally and physically and it’s been very hard but they’ve never backed down from a challenge. We aim to be ready to go again on Monday.”

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