AS THE senior Irish rugby team celebrated a triple crown triumph in Lansdowne Road, tragedy struck the under-19 team in South Africa when a young Irish player died just hours after being rushed off the field during a game against New Zealand.

The South African Rugby Football Union said last night flank John McCall, 19, from Armagh, was a victim of "sudden death syndrome" believed to be caused by a massive heart attack, though initially the young player was reported to have suffered from a broken neck.

McCall collapsed on the field after being tackled by an opposition player. He lay still on the field for several minutes, causing panic, and the game to come to a standstill for more than 12 minutes.

Paramedics rushed on, assuming he had been injured, and placed a neck brace on him as a precautionary measure. Spectators watched in shock as McCall was carried off on stretcher. He was taken to St Augustine's hospital after lengthy treatment at the Sharks Medical Centre. A battery of tests was done to establish the reasons for his collapsing on the field. McCall died a short while later.

Players were unaware of the unfolding tragedy and the match went ahead with New Zealand winning 30-6.

In Durban, a security blanket was thrown around the Irish team and its management who are staying at the Holiday Inn Durban Elangeni hotel on the beachfront.

IRFU president John Quilligin said: "It's a terrible tragedy. Our sincere condolences go out to the McCall family and everyone who knew John." South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) spokesman Anthony MacKaiser said last night they were standing by the Irish team in support during their bereavement. "As the host country, we will do anything to assist in alleviating the pain caused by this tragedy." In a joint statement last night, the International Rugby Board and the SARFU expressed deep shock and sadness over McCall's death.

IRB spokesperson Alison Hughes said they were still awaiting confirmation of the exact cause of death.

McCall was the nephew of former Irish international rugby player, Brian McCall.

The rising star had just led his school, Royal School Armagh, to victory in the Ulster Senior schools cup final 10 days ago on St Patrick's Day before being picked for the under-19 squad to play in the the world cup.

His tragic death comes less than a month after Tyrone Gaelic football star, Cormac McAnallen, collapsed and died at the age of just 21.