Statistical data as the sole arbiter of excellence lacks nuance and certainly doesn’t present a complete picture in the absence of the supplementary context of broader performance values. However, the data does nudge the analysis towards a reasonable starting point when it comes to evaluating team and player contributions.
Reflecting on the season-ending statistics of the recently completed Guinness Pro14 tournament with a view to compiling a team of the season from featured Irish players, this column was immediately struck by how, if any, different that side might be based on personal recollection of performances.
It is never more clearly illustrated than in choosing a fullback. Ulster’s Michael Lowry features prominently in a number of categories relating to attack including “defenders beaten” where he is ranked third (35) across all teams and was an impressive attacking catalyst for his team.
Obviously the number of matches played in the tournament is an important metric when assessing a player’s contribution and primarily for that reason there is a weighting in qualification terms for the most part against Ireland squad members.
Jimmy O'Brien (Leinster), like Lowry, acclimatised beautifully to a less familiar role, but it would be difficult to argue against Mike Haley as the standout Irish player in that position. The Munster fullback enjoyed a brilliant season, a sharp counter-attacking threat to complement his aerial skills. He was at the hub of the province's better performances en route to the final.
Taking the wings as a pair, Alex Wootton (Connacht) and Dave Kearney (Leinster) fulfil all the criteria when it comes to stats and performances. Wootton (nine) was one of three players at the top of the tournament try scoring table with Kearney, one behind on eight. Kearney was third (19) in "clean breaks" with Wootton (18) fourth; the same position overall for the Connacht wing (34) in "defenders beaten".
Going strictly on statistical data, Ulster's talented young centre Stewart Moore features more prominently than any other centre, but in terms of performances values Connacht's Tom Daly would be a shoo-in at inside centre, while by the same token James Hume (Ulster) probably deserves the 13 jersey in the putative team.
Jack Carty, Conor Fitzgerald, JJ Hanrahan and Ben Healy all feature prominently across a number of metrics, but Leinster's Harry Byrne, playing in a largely dominant team, just edges his rivals in employing that specific yardstick, particularly in the playmaking capacity; albeit acknowledging the scope to strongly argue for any of the aforementioned quartet.
In any other season, Luke McGrath's numbers/performances and ditto for Caolin Blade would make them irresistible candidates at scrumhalf, but Ulster's John Cooney is unassailable. He was the leading points scorer (115) in the tournament, had the most try assists (13) and made the most clean breaks (22) while a standout player for his team.
Leinster props Peter Dooley and Michael Bent scored three tries apiece, a healthy contribution to supplement their work in more mundane chores, including playing an important role in a dominant Leinster scrum. Bent, who retires at the end of the season, will be missed, the epitome of a team player.
Connacht hooker Shane Delahunt facilitated the most lineout wins (139), Dan Sheehan (Leinster) scored the most tries (six), Kevin O'Byrne (Munster) may have been reincarnated as a hooker from a previous life as an outhalf but according to the statistics James Tracy Leinster) was the most visible across multiple categories.
Injuries to Iain Henderson, Sam Carter, David O'Connor and Cormac Izuchukwu meant that Ulster were forced to rely heavily on Kieran Treadwell and Alan O'Connor, and it is the Skerries man's durability that made him a strong contender along with Ross Molony, Devin Toner, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland, Fineen Wycherley and several young aspirants.
However the body of work offered by Gavin Thornbury and Ultan Dillane is impossible to ignore with the latter consistently excellent and arguably playing as well as he has ever done. Any discussion about the backrow in Irish rugby is oversubscribed in terms of quality candidates.
How can you possibly ignore Ulster’s Nick Timoney, Connacht’s Paul Boyle or Leinster’s Josh Murphy, who were individually outstanding or any one of Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Jack O’Donoghue and Conor Oliver? But there is no room for argument based on the statistics.
Rhys Ruddock, who spent the early part of the season as a number eight, has had to reinforce his mantelpiece based on the number of man-of-the-match accolades while Scott Penny is the co-leading try scorer (nine) in the tournament alongside Wootton and Marcell Coetzee and features in several other categories.
It’s very much the same for Munster number eight Gavin Coombes, whose excellence is likely to be rewarded with a first Ireland cap in the summer as may be the case with Penny.
The team below is largely based on statistical data, except when it is not!
An Irish Pro14 team of the season
15 Mike Haley (Munster)
14 Alex Wootton (Connacht)
13 James Hume (Ulster)
12 Tom Daly (Connacht)
11 Dave Kearney (Leinster)
10 Harry Byrne (Leinster)
9 John Cooney (Ulster)
1 Peter Dooley (Leinster)
2 James Tracy (Leinster)
3 Michael Bent (Leinster)
4 Ultan Dillane (Connacht)
5 Gavin Thornbury (Connacht)
6 Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
7 Scott Penny (Leinster)
8 Gavin Coombes (Munster)