U20 World Championship: Ireland staring into relegation abyss

Losing against Japan on Sunday would be calamitous for next year’s squad

Ireland’s Matthew Dalton in action against Scotland in the Under-20 World Championship in Stade Aime-Giral, Perpignan, France. Photograph: Pascal Rodriguez

Ireland’s Matthew Dalton in action against Scotland in the Under-20 World Championship in Stade Aime-Giral, Perpignan, France. Photograph: Pascal Rodriguez

 

On Sunday in Beziers Ireland stare into a rugby abyss knowing that defeat against Japan will see them relegated from the Under-20 World Championship to the second tier Under-20 World Trophy tournament next season. It’s a historical first and footnote that the players and management are desperate to avoid.

The ramifications in losing would be calamitous for next year’s Irish 20s squad as instead of competing amongst an elite peer group they would drop into an eight team tournament that contains Romania, Samoa, Fiji, Portugal, Hong Kong and Namibia to highlight several participants.

Two wins in nine matches this season between the Six Nations and the World Championship including four defeats in succession in France follows on from three wins in last year’s Six Nations and two victories against Samoa and Georgia that saw Ireland finish ninth in the global tournament in 2017, having lost all three pool matches.

There have been three head coaches in that period. Nigel Carolan, who guided the Irish 20s to the 2016 World Championship final, stepped down after the 2017 Six Nations to take up a position as Connacht’s backs coach. Peter Malone acted as interim head coach for the Under-20 World Championship last summer in Georgia while Noel McNamara is in his first season in charge.

Ireland went to Georgia in 2017 without first choice players Cillian Gallagher, Bill Johnston, Jordan Larmour, Robert Lyttle, Johnny McPhillips and Tommy O’Brien and this year Angus Curtis, Jack O’Sullivan, Ronan Kelleher, Tom O’Toole, Eoghan Clarke and Sean Masterson are absent through injury.

In that timeframe and given those constraints, the composition of Irish teams included several second, third and fourth choice players in their respective positions.

Five Irish players, Jordan Duggan, captain, Caelan Doris, Tommy O’Brien (he is booked in for shoulder surgery next Tuesday), Jack Dunne and Diarmuid Barron (playing with a damaged thumb) will start their fifth game in 19 days on Sunday. Fullback Michael Silvester would have been a sixth but he tore his hamstring against Scotland. It’s a ridiculous loading for teenagers and something the organisers have to address.

So while there is some mitigation in circumstance there is considerably less so in that the same or similar fault lines in performance can be traced through the nine matches that Ireland have played this season. In essence they have managed to get in their own way in virtually every game with an inadvertent carelessness that has proved suffocating and costly.

Debilitating

It has permeated every facet of the game from the generics of attack, defence and set piece to the specifics of kicking, handling, tackling and discipline. An inability to manage games, to be reasonably precise and measured in decision-making and execution and to play the percentages has been hugely debilitating.

A facility to compound one error with several more in quick succession has fast-tracked the concession of tries; opponents haven’t had to work too hard to cross the Irish line. Ireland’s back play, in marked contrast to the Six Nations, was too deep and lateral at the start of the tournament – Curtis has been a huge loss – has shown improvement but the primary cutting edge has come from the forwards direct carrying style.

In the micro analysis it doesn’t matter that Ireland got closer than any team in the tournament to date to World Cup finalists, France (26-24) and in South Africa faced pool opponents who lost a semi-final 32-31 to England; it simply serves to torture this young Irish squad, hoisted by their own petard of “could have, would have, should have”.

Hindsight clarified that deciding to chase victories in the first two pool matches left Ireland physically vulnerable against Georgia – they beat Ireland as Under 18s two years ago – and that imbalance in terms of selection means that a handful of players are running on fumes.

Post tournament there’ll be a need for introspection from an IRFU perspective, re-examining a system where Under-20 players are selected from provincial academies and sub academies, the absence of inter-provincials, and trying to guarantee a playing structure that offers high quality rugby without overloading young bodies. The injury profile is a little worrying.

A problem with drawing down exclusively from academies and sub academies is the supposition that they contain the best players in the country. They don’t. Players mature at different rates, some train on, others don’t. No system is perfect – even one that has produced 52 senior internationals from this age grade – so to rely predominantly on it is flawed.

Sunday eclipses all peripheral concerns. This Irish squad doesn’t lack courage, character and intermittent quality as they have shown in the midst of each setback but for 80-minutes in Beziers they must avoid contributing to their downfall.

2017
Under-20 Six Nations Championship

P 5 W 3 L 2
Scotland 19 Ireland 20; Italy 26 Ireland 27; Ireland 27 France 22; Wales 41 Ireland 27; Ireland 10 England 14

Under-20 World Championship
P 5 W 2 L 3
Ireland 21 Italy 22; Ireland 28 Scotland 32; Ireland 3 New Zealand 69; Ireland 52 Samoa 26; Ireland 24 Georgia 18

2018
Under-20 Six Nations Championship

P 5 W 2 L 3
France 34 Ireland 24; Ireland 38 Italy 34; Ireland 38 Wales 41; Ireland 30 Scotland 25; England 48 Ireland 15

Under-20 World Championship
P 4 W 0 L 4
France 26 Ireland 24; Ireland 17 South Africa 30; Ireland 20 Georgia 24; Ireland 29 Scotland 45

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.