Ruddock's juniors defying injuries and long-haul travails
Fiji stand between Irish under 20s and a world semi-final, says Brendan Fanning
When Mike Ruddock's under 20 squad flew out to New Zealand 11 days ago there wasn't an expectant party of well-wishers seeing them off.
Typically, the Junior World Championship is a harrowing experience for our teams. Each of the Sanzar nations has advantages in genetics – access to either Polynesian or Akrikaaner talent that is much further down the track physically than our lot – and playing numbers. Add in England and France who dwarf us on the numbers game, as well as having a greater cultural pot to pick from, and it tends to be an uphill struggle.
This time Ireland's chances of getting within sight of the summit were compounded by those left behind. Dan Leavy, an awesome prospect and captain of the side in the Six Nations, has been out since missing the last two games of that tournament. He was replaced in that role by Connacht second-row Seán O'Brien, who was also unavailable for this trip.
Add in, or subtract, centre Peter Robb, wing Adam Byrne and fullback David Busby and you understand why the bookies weren't shortening the price on Ireland being at the business end.
Worse again, they lost prop Craig Trenier within a few days of arriving. And yet a winning bonus point against Fiji on Tuesday will secure a spot in the semi-final for Ruddock's squad, the first time Ireland will have made the last four since 2004 in Glasgow when they went one step further, to be beaten by New Zealand.
"They (Fiji) were only 5-0 down at half-time against France so they won't be easy," Ruddock says of their final pool game. "I think they'll be better as the tournament goes on because unlike us with the Six Nations they didn't have game time ahead of this. But mentally our boys are in a good place."
Having lost then to France, after barely four days to recover from the long-haul flight, they did well to take a bonus point from the effort.
"We're still gutted about the French result because the boys just felt they were a yard off where they wanted to be. I think France got out to New Zealand a bit earlier than us and hit their stride quicker, which is maybe something we can learn from looking forward to future years in this competition."
After the loss to France, Ireland were faced with another down-table finish if they couldn't overturn Wales on Friday – a Welsh side who were physically far ahead of Ireland when beating them 16-0 in the opening round of the Six Nations, in Athlone in February. And they did it despite having two men in the bin.
"In that Six Nations game with the wind and rain – and the way it was refereed – I felt we didn't have a plan B because there was no capacity for a plan B," Ruddock says.
"The pitch was heavy and wet and the weather was awful. We wanted to move the ball but we couldn't do it that night. It was different here: with these pitches and this weather we had an opportunity to play some rugby. Even though we still came second best in
the scrum, I thought we had a plan B and the boys did it very well."
The injury situation now is manageable, though Ruddock admits a few of his players are "very sore". His key performers should be able to deliver again soon enough though: outstanding centre Garry Ringrose, outhalf Ross Byrne, second-row Ross Molony and back-rowers Jack O'Donoghue, the captain, and Frankie Taggart.
"A few might have to miss the Fiji game so I'll just have to look at my selection and weigh up whether I should put guys out for a third time or freshen things up a bit. I'll need to look at that very carefully."
His task would be made easier if the IRB adopted a rolling subs policy for this tournament. It's an unfeasible squeeze to ask teams to play three pool games in 10 days. In next year's World Cup for example, Joe Schmidt's squad will have 14 days to cover their first three pool games, and then a full week to the fourth.
The under 20 panel is only 28 strong, so from a late start to where they are now it's stress of a high order. The prospects of a late finish though are better than anyone expected.
Sunday Indo Sport