The IRFU is poised to withdraw the Ireland U20 team from the Junior World Championship from next year because of issues over player welfare and finance.
The shock development comes in a week when Ireland are poised in Italy for their best ever finish in the fledgling competition which has been won in each of its three years so far by New Zealand.
The Baby Blacks have again reached the semi-finals, while Ireland face South Africa on Wednesday in Padua in a fifth place semi-final spot.
Ireland’s best finish was eighth two years in Japan, a position they will equal even if they lose to the Baby Boks and to the losers of the other semi-final between Wales and Fiji.
The IRFU decision to withdraw the team from next year’s competition centre largely around player welfare. Cost is also believed to play a part, although the IRB cover flights and hotel expenses for each participating country.
The IRB are likely to put pressure on the IRFU to reconsider their position but sources in the Union say the decision has already been made. It is also believed Wales and Scotland may consider following Ireland’s lead.
The timing of the competition and the number of games — five in 17 days — are believed to be the primary concerns. Most of the Irish squad are in provincial academies and squads and should be coming off downtime and starting preseason when the Junior World Championship is held each year.
Ireland’s proposed withdrawal may see a reversal of provinces having first call over U20 players during the Six Nations.
Earlier this year coach Mike Ruddock had to plan without several first-team players who were called up by the provinces to cover for players away on RBS Six Nations duty.
A number of other teams, including USA, Canada and Samoa, who participated in the inaugural Junior World Championship pulled out in the past few years because of cost factor but Ireland’s withdrawal would be the first from a leading rugby country.
As such the IRB is likely to mount pressure on Ireland to reconsider.
Ireland’s win over Scotland on Friday night, following earlier pool losses to England and South Africa, was welcomed as it would lead Ireland achieve a better seeding for next year’s competition, but that now looks like being immaterial.