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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

Late call-ups increasingly important as physical toll of Rugby World Cup grows

From D’Arcy to Boss, Ireland have had no shortage of late arrivals into their World Cup squad.

HISTORY SUGGESTS THAT those players unfortunate to miss out on Ireland’s World Cup squad would be wise to make sure their phones aren’t left on silent over the next few weeks.

While so much focus is placed on who comes through the pre-World Cup warm-up matches unscathed, the damage done once the tournament begins is often equally significant.

Ireland travelled to Japan with both Joey Carbery and Keith Earls battling to be fit for Sunday’s opening Pool A game against Scotland. Since landing in the ‘land of the rising sun’ last week, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney have added to Joe Schmidt’s concerns.

As a result, just two weeks after learning he hand’t made the final 31-man cut, Will Addison found himself being pulled from an Ulster pre-season game as a precaution.

There is every chance that Addison, Jordi Murphy, Kieran Marmion, Jack McGrath or even Devin Toner, the most high-profile omission from Schmidt’s squad, could yet have some part to play in Japan.

A look at the most recent World Cups serves as a reminder of how tournament-ending injuries are increasingly becoming an unavoidable factor of the sport’s showpiece event.

irelandos-paul-oconnell-watches-on-during-the-match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The 2015 World Cup was particularly attritional, with one of the most memorable images of Ireland’s quarter-final collapse against Argentina the sight of influential leaders Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton watching on from the stands in their tracksuits as Ireland’s World Cup hopes were obliterated.

For that knock-out tie, Schmidt had O’Connell, Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Jared Payne all unavailable through injury, while Sean O’Brien also missed out through suspension.

O’Mahony suffered knee ligament damage in the final pool game against France, and was replaced by Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock the following day. O’Connell, injured in the same game, was replaced by Mike McCarthy, with the Ireland captain’s hamstring injury so severe that it ultimately ended his playing career.

Schmidt’s third and final change was more left-field. Payne had fractured his foot in Ireland’s pool game against Romania on September 27, but Schmidt waited a full two weeks before deciding to call in a replacement, using the opportunity to bring in Issac Boss as further cover at scrum-half. 

The input of Schmidt’s three late call-ups was limited. Ruddock replaced Jordi Murphy with ten minutes to play in Cardiff as Argentina held a 33-20 lead. Both Boss and McCarthy failed to make the bench for the game, and so played no part in the tournament as the Pumas held out and sent Schmidt’s men packing.

Ireland were not the only team hit hard by injury. Wales lost both Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny from their initial 31-man squad due to injuries sustained in their final warm-up game, and Warren Gatland saw four more players ruled out before the mid-way point of the pool stages. 

isaac-boss-and-damien-varley Isaac Boss and Damian Varley at the 2011 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland suffered similar disruption at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, where squads were limited to 30 players, rather than the 31 limit brought in from 2015. Ireland head coach Declan Kidney was forced to make two changes to his squad as he lost David Wallace and Jerry Flannery to injury,  but in general it was unusual for teams to require more than one replacement to their original selection.

Wallace’s World Cup ended up being over before it had even started. The flanker suffered serious knee ligament damage following a tackle by England’s Manu Tuilagi in Ireland’s final warm-up game. As a result, Wallace didn’t board the plane to New Zealand, with Leinster’s Shane Jennings taking his seat instead. 

Jennings started alongside Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland’s back-row for their opening Pool C clash against the United States.  He was left out of the match day squad and replaced in the starting team by Sean O’Brien for the following game against Australia, a 15-6 win, but was back on the bench for the facile 62-12 win against Russia, replacing O’Brien with just over 20 minutes to play and scoring the eighth of Ireland’s nine tries.

It proved to be his last action of the tournament, with the player dropped for the routine 36-6 defeat of Italy and resulting quarter-final loss to Wales. Unlike Wallace, Flannery did make the plane to New Zealand but it didn’t take long for his World Cup to end.

The Munster hooker replaced Rory Best for the final 20 minutes against the United States, but tore his left calf muscle in training the following week.  His replacement, Damien Varley, failed to even make a matchday squad, with Kidney instead placing his trust in Rory Best and Sean Cronin. 

Varley had only been capped twice before his World Cup call-up, and would have to wait three more years to make his third, and final appearance for Ireland.

Unusually for Ireland, the 2007 World Cup in France saw the initial 30-man squad all see out the campaign, but it could be argued that an Ireland team has never returned from a tournament carrying such emotional damage. Eddie O’Sullivan’s side failed to make it out of a pool of death alongside Argentina, France, Georgia and Namibia, and the experience is still referenced as an all-time low by many of the players involved.

O’Sullivan was also at the helm in 2003, when Alan Quinlan was replaced by David Wallace and Denis Hickie by Tyrone Howea, at a World Cup which ended with a 43-21 quarter-final defeat to France.

gordon-darcy Gordon D'Arcy at the 1999 tournament. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The disruption was minimal in 1999, with Gordon D’Arcy called up to replace Girvan Dempsey, and featuring in the pool win against Romania.

Given the increasingly physical nature of the game, it is no surprise that late call-ups have become more commonplace over the years, with Schmidt recently admitting that he feels a 34-man squad is a more fair, and realistic, number for such a demanding competition.

This year’s tournament promises wet and difficult conditions, mixed with some unfavourable quick-turnarounds between games.

So on top of more big selection headaches to solve over the next few weeks. It’s highly likely he will have to make some phone calls back home which will be equally as important.

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