Any time one of the heads in IRFU-land tells you something is still under consideration you should ring the bookies and get the children’s allowance on it being a done deal. So the idea that they are only ‘thinking’ about reversing from the U20 World Cup train next year? Eh no. As far as they are concerned, our journey there is over.
It has been suggested that there are two elements here: financial and player welfare. Finance is always a big issue in Lansdowne Road, and has never been more closely scrutinised than since Tom Grace started counting the beans. The annual budget for running the U20s is circa €300k. I don’t know how much of that could be saved by not going to an annual tournament where the IRB picks up the tab for flights and accommodation and internal transport, but let’s be generous and say that preparing the squad for the June gig – aside altogether from the Six Nations tournament in which they are happy to continue – was €150k. Would they be pulling out of a world event to save that?
The line the IRFU are plugging with more enthusiasm is the one about player welfare. And they have a point here: ideally you would want your best players at this level getting four weeks off at the end of the season, and coming refreshed into preparation for the next one. When they go to the U20 World Cup in June they come home knackered, and behind on the holiday/pre-season schedule for the next term. Remember: these fellas are trying to make their way in the professional world.
Ireland’s success at international level has had a lot to do with looking after the players in the summer. And during the playing season as well. If we mess with that then pretty soon you’re asking too much of too few. So are we flogging the kids by sending them off to a World Cup every June when they are trying to nail down provincial places?
Well if we are then the people who should be making that argument most forcefully are the provincial coaches. They are the ones who pick up the pieces when the 20s come home from the World Cup. Because the Irish system is working reasonably well, we are now fast-tracking more players into the four provinces’ senior set-ups. So potentially it’s those operations that could suffer by the young bloods being away in June.
Yet they haven’t said a word. Not a peep from Joe Schmidt or Brian McLaughlin or Tony McGahan or Eric Elwood complaining about damage being done to players they will need in the Pro12 – as we are learning to call the Magners now – when it kicks off in September with the marquee names down in New Zealand with Ireland.
On the contrary: everyone in the provinces I spoke to put huge store in the development benefit of playing in the U20 World Cup. Good for the provinces and good for Ireland.
Clearly the U20 World Cup is not a perfect tournament, and four games of huge intensity in 13 days is a crazy workload to begin with. Then they keep you there to play off for the minor placings, so Ireland will play Wales on Sunday for the dubious honour of coming seventh. That’s a ludicrous five games in 17 days. The Ireland senior squad for example will have just four pool matches spread over 22 days in New Zealand. The IRB could start by suggesting a revamp where less might be more.
Already the U20 version has been redesigned at the behest of the Six Nations. Its age group – moved down to 20s from 21s – was to suit them, as was reducing it from 16 to the 12 teams that are contesting this tournament currently.
Now the Irish are gearing to reverse and seemingly the Welsh and the Scots are unenthusiastic as well about continuing for much longer in the current format. We should remember this though: the history in rugby of countries pulling out of one thing or another is that they come back with their tails between their legs. If we pull out of this then it will go on without us, and when we come knocking to get back in we could be told to take the qualifying route. Now how much do you think that would cost?