Following the disappointment of missing out on the Ireland U20s’ Grand Slam success in the spring, Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy centre Stewart Moore is ready to make the most of his opportunities at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Argentina.
Despite initially being named in Noel McNamara’s squad for the Six Nations, a concussion issue ruled Moore out of the Championship. He also had to contend with a medial collateral ligament injury in recent months, before regaining full fitness in time for Tuesday’s opening Pool B clash with England in Santa Fe (kick-off 3.30pm local time/7.30pm Irish time).
While the 19-year-old Malone clubman found it tough to watch on from the sidelines, he was thrilled to see his colleagues delivering the kind of performances he knew they were capable of.
16“I got concussed in one of the trial matches coming up to Christmas, against Leinster,” he explained, speaking at last month’s squad announcement at the PwC offices in Dublin.
“It was concussion and I was out for three months, so that was me missing the Six Nations. I came back and played a few AIL games for Malone and got injured again and then eventually made it back now.
“I was obviously jealous (to miss the Six Nations), but it was great for the lads. I have trained with them and played with them and played against them and just watching them go out there was class. I had no doubts about them against England or France. I knew they were going to do it.”
As someone who can cover both centre positions, Moore is hoping to offer Ireland a different option in Argentina. His return to the fold is ideally timed as knee surgery has ruled captain David Hawkshaw out of the tournament.
The skilful Ulster youngster is one of seven uncapped players in Ireland’s 28-strong selection for the Championship – Declan Adamson, Thomas Ahern, Azur Allison, Ciaran Booth, Charlie Ward and Iwan Hughes being the others – and he is fully aware of the advantages that come with being a jack of all trades.
“I think it was 14 boys went down injured last year (with the Ireland U20s), so it changes massively. Especially with Argentina being so far away you are going to have players with some connections to playing other positions. Noel is completely confident in his players and tries these different things.
“Sean French was playing at 12 there and he can play wing, 13 and 15 whenever he has to, so we have got great variety in our attack and our defence as a whole.”
Since graduating from Ballymena Academy last year, Moore has enjoyed a whirlwind introduction to provincial rugby at Kingspan Stadium. Already assured of a spot in the Academy, he was immediately elevated into the senior set-up with a debut appearance in last August’s pre-season game against Gloucester.
“I left school in May and I had found out at Easter that I was straight into the Academy. By June I was in training with the seniors so it was a big jump. It is just consistency that is the difference between Academy and professional.
“It is a big jump but having been exposed so much to that, I feel going to the next pre-season that I do belong there. You are training beside Jacob Stockdale, who is possibly the hottest winger in world rugby, and you are passing to him. You have boys like Will Addison, who has been a great help on and off the field.”
Whereas Angus Kernohan, who is also part of the travelling party in Argentina, has become a regular fixture in Dan McFarland’s Ulster senior squad, injury and circumstance has delayed Moore’s competitive bow for the time being. Nevertheless, he has reaped the benefits of his early exposure to the professional game.
“I did the whole pre-season, which was unexpected, and I enjoyed it. I felt like I had a really good pre-season behind me and I started the games against Gloucester and Wasps. I got injured again so it has probably been the hardest year of rugby in terms of loads and stuff.
“It is nice that I’ve been brought back into the seniors and into the mix as soon as I’ve come back from injury. It’s been good getting that exposure to players like Stu McCloskey, Luke Marshall. I’ve been training in ‘the injured club’ with Luke for a good bit so it’s good to see him back. It just shows how quickly you can go from that to playing in the Champions Cup.”
It was during last December’s warm-up match against a Leinster Development XV at Energia Park that Moore suffered the concussion that ultimately ended his U20 Six Nations aspirations. On the day he had started at inside centre alongside French, and while he was able to train away with Ulster during his three-month absence, he was held back from full contact training.
“You are training away and are good fitness-wise and I felt really good coming back into the rugby,” he recalled. “I was a bit nervous, but (Skills Coach) Dan Soper is there taking injured skills and he is top class. There are boys still keeping their skills up as well as their gym and fitness.”
That hard work will be visible over the next few weeks and we wish him and the squad well for the tournament.