What achievement do Munster centre Rory Scannell, Leinster number eight Jack Conan and Connacht pair Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane share this season? They are the four players in Ireland's extended squad for the Six Nations Championship who have individually amassed over 1,000 minutes of competitive rugby season, a cumulative total that includes Guinness Pro14 and Champions or Challenge Cup tournaments.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is preparing the squad in the warm weather climes of Spain this week – they return on Friday – gearing up for Saturday week's opening Six Nations game against France at the Stade de France.
There was a recent study done by an English newspaper that highlighted the game minutes accumulated by the Lions squad that toured New Zealand last summer in domestic competition; specifically the Aviva Premiership, the Top 14 and the Pro14 and excluding any match time from the two European tournaments.
The top 10 players were English and played in the Premiership led by Northampton Saints' Courtney Lawes on 815 minutes. Ireland and Ulster secondrow Iain Henderson (422) – as an aside he played all 80-minutes in each of his province's six, Champions Cup matches – was the leading Irish man in 21st place. It was offered as a partial explanation for disappointing performance of the English clubs, where only defending champions Saracens qualified for the knockout stages of the elite European tournament.
Blocks of matches
The IRFU’s Player Management Programme, which carefully monitors and limits the amount of minutes the Ireland squad members are permitted to play and, drilling down further, breaks the season into blocks of matches. The diktat does not always sit easily with the provinces but in general terms it works and is frequently referenced as a positive by the players who benefit.
In contrast England number eight Billy Vunipola, currently sidelined with a fractured arm and who missed the Lions tour through injury, warned last September that he could not handle the workload of his English and Saracens playing commitments, and called for a reduction in the number of games that elite players were forced to play in England. He wasn't a lone voice.
Rory Scannell has played 17 (14 starts, three as replacement) from a possible 19 matches (13 games in the Pro14 and six Champions/Challenge Cup matches) this season to date, a phenomenal effort and a testament to his durability and the quality of his performances in general. The long-term injury issue with centre Jaco Taute was undoubtedly a factor, so too the neck problem that continues to affect Tyler Bleyendaal; the latter might have lined out at inside centre for a couple of games.
Leinster hooker Seán Cronin, who has returned to the Ireland squad for the Six Nations after missing out in November on foot of some outstanding club form, is the only other member of the 36-man panel who has played in 17 matches (11+6) but considerably less minutes (818).
As the graphic indicates there are four Munster players and three apiece from Leinster and Connacht in the top 10. Number eight Jack Conan leads the way for Leo Cullen's side with 13 starts and average game time of nearly 66 minutes per match. Bundee Aki is just 60 seconds before in terms of the overall figures, followed by Ultan Dillane and then Chris Farrell.
The Munster centre missed six weeks after sustaining a knee injury in Ireland's victory over Argentina last November; he probably would have played more than 13 games but for the enforced sabbatical. He averages 76 minutes per game played.
It’s still not the best though in terms of average minutes per match as that honour falls to provincial team-mate CJ Stander, who has played all 80-minutes in his 11 matches in Munster red so far this season, lying in 11th place overall. It’s a physical feat that almost rivals that of Rory Scannell, in terms of quality input, if not volume.
Munster prop James Cronin has accumulated less minutes than any other player so far this season, primarily down to an injury ravaged season, but he could legitimately point out that his elevation to the Ireland squad to replace the unfortunate Dave Kilcoyne, endorses the calibre of his contribution.
Ireland captain Rory Best is another who has been plagued by injury, while former Ireland Under-20 captain James Ryan has been unlucky too albeit that he's managed to line out in 10 matches for Leinster this season, while Jonathan Sexton's managed eight games.
Sexton, Best and Stander all toured with the Lions to New Zealand last summer.