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After a full year on the go, is Irish rugby running on empty?

Irish players went into World Cup camp a year ago this week and they have not stopped playing since

Ireland’s Andrew Porter has played a significant number of matches at international and club level so far this season. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Scientists have been conducting studies for many years on what is best for rugby players and their bodies. They have investigated how many matches is enough, or too much, or too few. They have parsed the effects of an eight-week off-season on conditioning, strength and speed and they have monitored the training volume of teams and injury incidence.

So, far be it for anyone to suggest to the Irish rugby boffins, who carefully monitor the number of minutes each player has in his or her body, that this season is feeling that little bit long and testing the verity that too much of a good thing is bad.

A few weeks ago, Leinster coach Leo Cullen was less lamenting than observing that, when he was a player 20 years ago with Leicester and Leinster, the season generally finished at the end of May. Had Leinster reached the final of the United Rugby Championship, they would be playing in the final this weekend. Over the years, the rugby season has grown by a month.

With a couple of Ireland Test matches coming up in a few weeks in Pretoria and Durban, you wonder just how players like Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne are feeling right now, not just physically but in their in their mental acuity and their appetite for what will be two gruelling matches against the world champions, one of them at altitude in Loftus Versfeld.


At the end of May last year, Andy Farrell announced a 42-player Ireland summer training squad to begin preparations for the Nations Series and Rugby World Cup. That panel of players were asked to assemble at the IRFU high performance centre on June 18th for the first block of pre-season. That was exactly a year ago last Tuesday.

Since then, it has been largely non-stop for frontline international players like the Irish loose head prop Porter and secondrow Beirne. During that one year window, Porter played in 11 international matches beginning in August 2023 against England and ending on March 16th in the Six Nations against Scotland.

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He also played in 14 club games with Leinster beginning in November against Scarlets after the World Cup and ending with Leinster’s defeat by the Bulls in the URC semi-final.

In his last three matches with Leinster this season against Toulouse, Ulster and Bulls, Porter played for 92 minutes (the Champions Cup decider went to extra-time), 66 minutes and 73 minutes respectively, a heavy workload for a prop.

In all, he played 934 minutes for Leinster and 603 minutes for Ireland for 1,537 minutes total, which is equivalent to just over 19 full matches, which over a year does not seem all that much.

Still, modern props are not made any more to go for a full 80 minutes and Porter never once played for the entire game, although he came close on a few occasions at international level, punching out over 70 minutes against England twice, Wales and South Africa.

Beirne had even more impressive numbers, playing in 12 international matches during the same period, eight of them for the entire match, tallying up to 782 minutes. For Munster, he again impressively played in 17 games, all of them for 80 minutes except for one match against Glasgow Warriors, where he was given a yellow card and played for 70 minutes.

Munster required 1,350 minutes of his playing time for an overall 2,132 minutes on the pitch. Beirne’s accumulated minutes equates to 26.56 competitive matches and he is back in camp preparing to go two more rounds against the Springboks in South Africa.

Tadhg Beirne has amassed a significant playing load for Munster and Ireland this year. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

That’s not forgetting that there will be four more Test matches next November in the Aviva Stadium against New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia, a 2025 Six Nations and a Lions tour next summer to Australia.

The Lions tour begins with a game against Argentina in Dublin on June 6th and is followed by nine more matches, including three Test matches against Australia. A fit Beirne and Porter, as well as other Irish players, will be involved in all three international windows as well as a full season with their clubs.

The reality is these South African games are the quid pro quo system at work. Ireland go to South Africa with a strong squad, not a development squad but a winning squad, and the matches will ideally sell out Loftus Versfeld and Kings Park. The South African Rugby Union make money from the fixtures and return the favour by travelling to Dublin, where the IRFU will fill Aviva Stadium. And so it goes.

It poses a reasonable question of how much rugby is too much? How many of the niggling injuries that are managed week to week, the accumulated head knocks, the mental stress of having to prepare properly, perform on demand and ultimately win, quietly stack up against the players.

The business of rugby has evolved over time and the players clearly accept their employee role has changed. They sign contracts and play matches knowing their profession has jeopardy and they have limited career time.

As ever, players are also the last to admit if they are running on empty. Perhaps the scientists with their studies can tell if players are in the red. Either way, perhaps that’s why this season is feeling a little long.