Ireland’s National Player Management Programme is much admired outside the country, or certainly appears to be given how often it gets an airing from opposing teams and unions, and it’s reasonable to assume that the principal beneficiaries, the players in question, would also be keen advocates of a system that strictly regulates their game time.
Not everyone is enamoured. Coaches must occasionally crave greater flexibility, especially when ravaged by injuries, albeit fully conversant with how the arrangement works from day one. Matches involving the Irish provinces in the Guinness Pro14 around the Christmas and New Year period, contested by teams that are shorn of marquee names, exercise the goodwill of some supporters.
The majority, as was reflected in the attendances over the three weekends of recent interprovincial derbies, tolerate the absence and instead enjoy watching burgeoning talent. Conversely the French Top 14 bears the reputation of a league that exacts a huge physical toll on players who are expected to play on a more regular basis for their clubs.
On Saturday the two leagues collide in Heineken Champions Cup round five fixtures as all four Irish provinces are pitted against French opposition.
Coincidentally the eight clubs in question played three matches in their respective domestic leagues over the festive period over between 13 and 15 days, and at face value there wasn’t much to chose between them in terms of the way the squads were rotated; the obvious exception and the tie with the greatest disparity in that regard is Leinster’s game against Lyon in the RDS on Sunday (1pm).
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen used 44 players over the course an unbeaten run through interprovincial clashes with Connacht, Munster and Ulster. In contrast his Lyon counterpart Pierre Mignoni employed just 30 players in a defeat away to Castres (29-12) and wins at home to Bayonne (52-9) and away to Agen (13-12) last time out.
Five Lyon players, wing Josua Tuisova, centre Charlie Ngatai, prop Demba Bamba, and flankers, Patrick Sobela and Dylan Cretin, started all three of those matches, while a further eight were in the run-on team in two games. The chance of the French side, currently eight points clear in second place in the Top 14, coming fully loaded, personnel-wise to Dublin on Sunday appears unlikely.
In contrast Leinster didn't have a single player that began all three provincial derbies with props Peter Dooley and Andrew Porter, secondrow Scott Fardy, flankers Josh Murphy and Will Connors and number eight Max Deegan managing a brace of starts. Dooley and hooker Sean Cronin togged out in all of the games over the period under scrutiny.
As the graphic illustrates, Connacht are the only province to use fewer players (31) than the French side that will visit the Sportsground on Saturday afternoon, Toulouse (34). Andy Friend's squad has been hit hard by injuries, thereby forcing his hand to some degree and he will be grateful that Bundee Aki, Jack Carty and Ultan Dillane are back in the selection hopper for the weekend.
Former Australian Sevens player John Porch, centre Tom Daly, outhalf Conor Fitzgerald – his ankle injury suffered against Leinster at the RDs is not as bad as first feared – scrumhalf Caolin Blade and flanker Paul Boyle started three games in the interprovincial series while a further eight were required to do so in two of those matches with fullback Tiernan O'Halloran coming on as a replacement in the other.
Their opponents, Toulouse, who drew with Toulon at home (13-13), beat Agen away (13-8) and lost to Stade Francais (30-18) in Paris, have just three players, Romain Ntamack, twice at inside centre and once at outhalf, scrumhalf Sebastien Bezy and loosehead prop Clement Castets that played all the matches. Ugo Mola was able to give an extended break to Springbok whizz and World Cup winner, Cheslin Kolbe, who make a try scoring return to the team last time out.
Ulster's head coach Dan McFarland called upon two players, secondrow Alan O'Connor and young flanker Matty Rea, to start three matches as he used 38 players during the period, winning two of three games. Clermont, who lost 41-19 in Toulouse and 27-19, managed to sandwich a win in the middle game, a 39-22 success against Castres, in the Stade Marcel Michelin, where they host Ulster on Saturday.
Centre George Moala, wing Alivereti Raka, outhalf Camille Lopez and secondrow Sebastien Vahaamahina managed the full complement in terms of fixtures for the French club.
Shane Daly is the only Munster (36) player to start all three matches, twice at fullback and once on the left wing in the games under scrutiny, while Dan Goggin, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, JJ Hanrahan, Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O'Byrne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Chris Cloete and Jack O'Donoghue doubled up in starting terms.
Johann van Graan's charges make the trip to the La Defense Arena in Paris and while Simon Zebo won't be playing, wing Louis Dupichot, outhalf Finn Russell, the front row of Eddie Ben Arous, Camille Chat and Ben Tameifuna and flanker Baptiste Chouzenoux could play their fourth game in succession for a Racing team that has used 33 players.