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Condensed schedule presents a host of problems in Japan

Ireland face some short turnarounds in Japan, but other teams have been dealt an even worse hand.

Peter O'Mahony was forced off against Scotland.
Peter O'Mahony was forced off against Scotland.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

FOR A TOURNAMENT that stretches all the way into early November, the World Cup feels rather squashed for many of the competing teams.

Joe Schmidt has made his frustration with Ireland’s World Cup schedule clear, with his team having just six days between Sunday’s defeat of Scotland and Saturday’s shock loss to host nation Japan.

It appears to be an issue that will intensify as the weeks roll on.

Schmidt was always going to feel aggrieved by the quick turnaround between the Scotland and Japan games, particularity with Japan not playing since the previous Friday, but the truth is Ireland have been handed a schedule far more favourable than that of many other teams.

The shortest turnaround Ireland face is the five days between the game against Japan and the meeting with Russia on Thursday. After playing three games in 11 days, they will then enjoy nine days breathing space before the final Pool A encounter with Samoa.

It is a gruelling itinerary by any standards, but the demands placed on some other teams is even more demanding.

Across the pool stages, there is a total of 13 games where one of the teams involved is working on a four-day turnaround.

For the teams in question, some of those fixtures will prove more problematic than others.

For example, as expected England were able to comfortably defeat the USA on Thursday despite making 10 changes to the team that had beaten Tonga four days previously. Yet the headline result of the week, Uruguay’s shock defeat of Fiji, was not as black and white as the final result suggested.

The game in Kamaishi was Uruguay’s first outing in the tournament. Fiji, on the other hand, had played Australia in Sapporo four days beforehand. After giving the Wallabies a genuine scare they made 12 changes to their starting team to take on Uruguay.

joe-schmidt The condensed schedule will impact Joe Schmidt's thinking Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In Pools C and D, four of the five teams have to negotiate a four-day turnaround once. Scotland and Russia are the only teams in Ireland’s pool tasked with that challenge.

The pool stage schedule is littered with similar imbalances.

The headline game of the second weekend is Australia versus Wales on Sunday, which will likely decide who will top Pool D. The Wallabies enter this crucial match having enjoyed two extra days rest than Wales, who beat Georgia on Monday.

Such quick turnarounds present any number of problems for coaches, and Schmidt has had to deal with some of those issues last week.

The Ireland head coach named Peter O’Mahony in his starting team for Japan despite the fact the player failed a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) against Scotland and was substituted with less than half an hour played. While he subsequently passed his HIA 2 and HIA 3, the return to play protocol outlines that he could not officially be ruled clear to play until day six of his recovery, which was the morning of the Japan game. O’Mahony had been scheduled to sit the game out before Jack Conan fractured his foot in training.

The tight turnaround also meant that should any of his players fail a HIA 1 against Japan they would automatically be ruled out for Thursday’s clash against Russia, given the five day turnaround does not allow for a player to complete the required six day return to play protocol. That means Rob Kearney, who failed a HIA 1 during the Japan loss, will not feature against Russia. 

And the imbalance extends beyond unfairly short turnarounds, with the total number of rest days also varying from team to team.

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For Japan, home advantage is a very tangible asset. Their shortest turnaround is the seven days between Saturday’s win over Ireland and the clash with Samoa a week later. They have a combined total of 20 days off between games in the pool stages, two more than any other team. Ireland have 17 rest days, while at the other end of the scale Canada, South Africa and the USA all have only 14.

That condensed schedule could have a real impact further down the line.

Ireland had been expected to book a quarter-final meeting with South Africa on 20 October, but the defeat to Japan has put Schmidt’s side on a collision course with New Zealand instead (19 October).

New Zealand play their final pool game against Italy on 12 October, the same day Ireland conclude their pool campaign against Samoa. Both sides would have a week to recover before their potential quarter-final on 19 October.

The Springboks, by comparison, finish their pool schedule four days earlier than Ireland. 

That means that while now unlikely, if an Ireland v South Africa quarter-final were to materialise, Ireland would enter the game against the Boks eight days after their final pool game. By that stage Rassie Erasmus’ team won’t have played for almost two weeks. Those four extra days could be hugely valuable for any individuals nursing injuries.

Of course these issues had presented themselves long before a ball was kicked in Japan, with Schmidt calling for an increase to the permitted 31-man squad. He said he would “love” to have 34 players, but that even an extra one would make a difference.

It goes without saying that planning a feasible schedule for a tournament of this magnitude is far from easy, but player welfare must be at the heart of all decision-making. The fear would be that some players and coaches cannot be trusted to do what is best for the player, particularly as the tournament enters the knock-out stages and the stakes are raised.

At least the schedule opens up once the pool stages conclude.

Team that win their quarter-final have seven days until their semi-final. The winner of the first semi-final will have a seven-day turnaround to the final, one more than the winner of semi-final two. The semi-final losers will have five and six days respectively before the bronze final.

rassie-erasmus-and-felix-jones-ahead-of-the-game South Africa's head coach Rassie Erasmus and skills consultant Felix Jones ahead of their game yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

World Rugby are certainly aware of the issue, and for the most part it is the emerging nations who enjoy the kinder schedule, making upsets like Uruguay’s, and to a lesser extent Japan’s, more possible, thus adding to the number of memorable results in a competition that could otherwise be painfully predictable.

World Rugby’s stance is that when it comes to managing injuries, the key area is training load management. The player welfare section of the World Rugby website states that “training load is reported to account for 84-95% of total physical load”, and according to their research the likelihood of a player suffering injury does not increase between a four-day turnaround and a full week.

That may be true, but it does not account for the fact that for many players at this World Cup, a four-day turnaround will significantly impact their ability to play two games in a row. Remember also that some squads facing that issue here contain players that are not full-time professionals.

The fact is that the World Cup is the only major tournament where teams are expected to manage schedules that a large number of coaches feel is unreasonable.

On the game’s biggest stage, that is a problem.

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