Rugby Stats: Managing the minutes of Ireland players

Club and country commitments complicate matters for the respective coaches

Leinster’s Ross   Byrne’s 543 minutes of action includes  seven starts and three runs off the bench. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster’s Ross Byrne’s 543 minutes of action includes seven starts and three runs off the bench. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The minutes cannot lie. Professional rugby in Ireland is built upon them.

The Irish system, we are told ad nauseam, wraps players in cotton wool unlike evil French and English clubs who flog our lost sons within an inch of their lives.

They send them over the top every Saturday like the 16th Division at the Somme.

That’s the sales pitch anyway. And it works. The juicy bait of protection (and Schmidtness) has most players – not Simon Zebo – foregoing their market value to stay home or at worst slip over the borderline to a neighbouring province.

The flogged foreigner theory stands up to scrutiny. Exeter’s website marks Gareth Steenson down for 534 minutes this season but their match reports bring him up to 785 minutes with a nine-match streak from September 1st to October 27th that cannot happen in Dublin, Limerick, Galway or Belfast.

Not to an Irish-qualified player anyway. The unwritten rule is no one plays more than seven games before being put on ice for a weekend.

However, Ian Madigan has only played 376 minutes when starting six of Bristol’s nine Championship outings.

Headline departures, like Madigan, these past few years not only brought the curtain down on their international careers but all of them have struggled on foreign fields.

Even Johnny Sexton, the exception who proves the rule, returned in such a state from Racing ’92 that Joe Schmidt told us: “I’m not sure he’s had the same resilience since then.”  

Marty Moore is the shadow tighthead at Wasps behind Jake Cooper-Woolley, starting in only two of his nine appearances this season. Donnacha Ryan has been injured since moving to Paris, Paul O’Connell’s Toulon sojourn never happened, Madigan couldn’t hold onto the 10 jersey in Bordeaux and JJ Hanrahan’s two seasons in Northampton never got going due to injury and form.

Home relations are not without friction. The regular Schmidt and Leo Cullen conversation – former coach to captain – must be interesting of late. Ross Byrne and Michael Bent – 290 minutes over eight games with four starts – have clocked up precious seconds for Leinster when Schmidt needs to be seeing Joey Carbery and Andrew Porter – 209 minutes but only one start – grow into understudies for Sexton and Tadhg Furlong come Japan 2019.

“It is an unfortunate situation for us but I totally understand,” said Schmidt with the usual doublespeak. “I would love to see Joey play 10 more often.”

Another issue is Cullen’s penchant for Sean Cronin (401 minutes) over Schmidt’s preferred hooker James Tracy (345).

What we do know is minutes are currency. The ceiling for each individual is tailored by age, value and injury profile. The provincial coaches must do their sums, knowing the Pro 14 will always suffer because it’s third on the list of priorities behind Ireland and the Champions Cup.  

See outhalf and learn. Sexton has 213 minutes for Leinster this season in three starts that would have been four only he pulled up before Montpellier. Ross Byrne stepped in as Joey Carbery impressed from fullback in the 24-17 victory.

Sexton’s 75-minute shift against South Africa brings him up to a measly 288. But the 32-year-old has developed the rare ability of performing even when undercooked.  

Just keep him simmering.  

The problem is Byrne’s 543 minutes with seven starts and three runs off the bench while Cathal Marsh’s 46 minutes across six games further clogs Carbery’s opportunity to play outhalf. 

Of Carbery’s 524-minute total, 65 came in the box seat. The other 459, over six starts at fullback for Leinster, led into his five-minute cameo against South Africa before the Fiji dance ended with a misstep into Peni Ravai’s warm embrace.

Munster’s spread of outhalf minutes will be very interesting in May. Rassie Erasmus is away home but his parting message to Johann van Graan was that Tyler Bleyendaal is the starting 10. When fit.

The soon to be Irish-qualified Kiwi had 330 minutes, including a run at 12 against Leinster, in five starts while JJ Hanrahan has 221 minutes, a chunk of them at fullback.   

Ian Keatley is the tortoise in this race. Schmidt’s back up option for Argentina, now Carbery’s injured, crossed the 400 minute threshold when guiding Ireland past Fiji last Saturday.  

Of course it’s only November, long way to run.

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