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Ireland and England: Lions recovery and player management (helping Ireland win the Grand Slam?)

Roar Rookie
26th March, 2018
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The Lions made history by defeating the All Blacks. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Roar Rookie
26th March, 2018
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The Six Nations finale was meant to be a head-to-head between Eddie Jones’ resurgent England and a powerful Ireland.

The Irish team appeared fresh from an Autumn taking on the giants from the southern hemisphere. 

What transpired was a game that was so one-sided, it was virtually just a spectacle by the start of the second half.

From our seat, England looked knackered – devoid of energy and impetus. Ireland, on the other hand, were dominating collisions and playing with a verve and dominance England couldn’t live with.

But why did England look so lethargic?

One plausible explanation comes from an analysis of the 2017 Lions tour – the introduction of those Lions players back into domestic rugby, and the amount of match time the players have contributed in the season to date.

Let’s look at each stage in sequence.

1. The Lions Tour
The first table shows the total game time (in minutes) for the Lions’ squad members:

Player Country Gametime (mins) Player Country Gametime (mins)
Taulupe Faletau Wales 480 Courtney Lawes England 258
Liam Williams Wales 424 George Kruis England 258
Elliot Daly England 418 Robbie Henshaw Ireland 258
Alun-Wyn Jones Wales 411 Jonathan Joseph England 240
Anthony Watson England 397 Dan Biggar Wales 238
Johnny Sexton Ireland 387 Leigh Halfpenny Wales 231
Jack Nowell England 384 James Haskell England 226
CJ Stander Ireland 384 George North Wales 223
Jamie George England 376 Peter O’Mahony Ireland 223
Maro Itoje England 372 Kyle Sinckler England 201
Owen Farrell England 365 Jack McGrath Ireland 186
Conor Murray Ireland 362 Jared Payne Ireland 185
Jonathan Davies Wales 348 Rhys Webb Wales 169
Tadhg Furlong Ireland 338 Ken Owens Wales 155
Sean O’Brien Ireland 334 Stuart Hogg Scotland 99
Mako Vunipola England 326 Ross Moriarty Wales 80
Sam Warburton Wales 323 Allan Dell Scotland 67
Ian Henderson Ireland 315 Finn Russell Scotland 38
Ben Te’o England 304 Juston Tipuric England 267
Joe Marler England 290 Rory Best Ireland 269
Greg Laidlaw Scotland 269 Dan Cole England 261
Tommy Seymour Scotland 261
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Although there is a large spread in the number of minutes logged by each player – there is no real bias towards players in a specific nation.

The same story is found when we look at minutes played in the three Test matches (below).

Lions Test minutes played
Player Total minutes
Owen Farrell 240
Eliott Daly 240
Taulupe Faletau 240
Jon Davies 240
Liam Williams 231
Jamie George 216
Connor Murray 216
Sean O’Brien 199
Maro Itoje 193
Tadhg Furlong 178
Anthony Watson 176
Johnny Sexton 176
Mako Vunipola 175
Sam Warburton 173
Alun-Wyn Jones 168
George Kruis 80
Jack McGrath 67
Ben Te’o 64
Jack Nowell 64
Kyle Sinckler 62
Courtney Lawes 53
Peter O’Mahony 53
CJ Stander 39
Rhys Webb 24
Ken Owens 24
Leigh Halfpenny 9

We see the big names at the top of the tables, but the playing load was fairly evenly spread across England, Ireland, and Wales. No one nation dominated the selections.

2. Transition back to domestic rugby
The final Lions test was on July 8. The Pro14 and Aviva Premiership domestic seasons started on the weekend of September 1, 2017.

Looking at the players in the third test who picked in the final Lions squad against New Zealand – and researching their return date to domestic rugby – we see a very interesting pattern.

Player Nation Club Days break
C Murray Ireland Munster 84
CJ Stander Ireland Munster 84
J Sexton Ireland Leinster 83
S O’Brien Ireland Leinster 83
T Furlong Ireland Leinster 83
J McGrath Ireland Leinster 83
AW Jones Wales Ospreys 76
R Webb Wales Ospreys 76
E Daly England Wasps 71
J George England Saracens 70
J Davies Wales Scarlets 69
K Owens Wales Scarlets 69
L Williams Wales Saracens 63
O Farrell England Saracens 63
M Vunipola England Saracens 63
A Watson England Bath 57
T Faletau Wales Bath 57
M Itoje England Saracens 56
K Sinckler England Harlequins 56
C Lawes England Northampton 56
B Te’o England Worcester 55
J Nowell England Exeter 55
S Warburton Wales Cardiff Blues N/A

In simple terms, this shows that the Irish players had the longest ‘rest period’ between the end of the Lions tour and their return to domestic rugby. 

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Next came Wasps players, and then those from the Welsh regions. Interestingly enough, the two Welsh players who returned the earliest both play for English teams.

To pull out a couple of individual cases – Maro Itoje returned for Saracens on the opening day (September 2) and played the full 80 minutes for the first four games of the season.

His colleague Owen Farrell, who had played every minute of the three Lions tests, returned a week later on September 9.

By comparison, the likes of Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong returned to action around the end of September.

This means that Farrell’s season will have been nearly three weeks longer than Sexton’s by the time they had met in Twickenham at the end of the Six Nations.

If we look at the England squad as a whole, 18 of the 23 players started the season in game week 1 (September 1, 2, and 3).

The return dates are just one aspect of player welfare, bringing the focus to the number of game minutes played over the whole 2017/18 season.

Owen Farrell British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

(AAP IMAGE/Adam Binns)

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3. Minutes played over the whole season 
The figures are quite surprising.

If we look at both match day squads the Ireland squad have played an average of 1006 minutes over the season, which equates to 12.58 games. 

England, by comparison, has played 1367 minutes on average, or 17.09 games. 

This means, on average, each of the Ireland players who took to the pitch on the final Six Nations weekend had played 4.5 games fewer than their English counterparts.

So not only were the key Irish players who went on the Lions tour getting a longer rest than the English based players, but the Irish squad as a whole has also played fewer games over the season to date. 

The combination of these two factors must have a material impact on a game at the elite level.

Let’s compare a few key positions (the raw data is at the bottom of the article):

Tighthead:  Dan Cole (1557 minutes) v Tadhg Furlong (1005)

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Loosehead: Mako Vunipola (1473) v Cian Healy (890)

2nd row: Maro Itoje (1422) v Iain Henderson (1313)

Scrum-half: Richard Wigglesworth (934) v Conor Murray (1334)

Outside half: Owen Farrell (1563) v Jonny Sexton (937)

When we look at this data we need to consider the context to the numbers.

Injuries, selection and suspensions will play a part, but the overall picture is clear – Ireland better manages its players’ workloads.

This chart below displays the total minutes played for all 46 players and shows Jacob Stockdale as the Irish player who has played the most minutes this season.

In addition, we see nine England players in front of him with more minutes.

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If we then look at the breakdown of where the minutes have been played we see an interesting pattern:

Ireland England
Minutes Games Minutes Games
Average squad over season 1006 12.58 1367 17.09
Average in domestic rugby 386 4.83 677 8.46
Average in European rugby 277 3.46 346 4.33
Average in Test rugby 342 4.28 341 4.26

The minutes played in Test rugby over the season are nearly identical (England, 341 minutes and Ireland, 342) while in Europe, the English squad played on average 0.87 of a game more than their Irish counterparts.

The major disparity comes in their appearances in domestic rugby. The Irish match day 23 that played against England had only played an average of 4.83 games in the Pro 14 (after game week 17).

The England squad had played an average of 8.46 games (after game week 17).

Helping Ireland win the Grand Slam?
A combination of a longer pre-season for the Irish Lions players plus the substantially lower playing time during the season must have given Ireland an advantage over England in this year’s Six Nations tournament.

Of course this isn’t the only consideration in determining who wins a game of rugby, and we should also consider tactics, experience, the weather, the referee and the multitude of factors that determine who wins a game but at this elite level, the difference of 4.5 games per player (or over a month of extra rugby) has to be a material influence.

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Below is the England squad for the England v Ireland Six Nations 2018 fixture, showing minutes played during the 2017/18 season by tournament.

Player Premiership minutes Test minutes Europe minutes Anglo-Welsh Total minutes
George Ford 880 535 400 0 1815
Don Armand 1264 14 480 0 1758
Anthony Watson 793 465 480 0 1738
Jonny May 774 526 400 0 1700
Jonathan Joseph 779 401 480 0 1660
Owen Farrell 605 480 478 0 1563
Chris Robshaw 761 626 176 0 1563
Dan Cole 741 469 347 0 1557
Joe Launchbury 621 412 480 0 1513
Mako Vunipola 594 463 416 0 1473
Danny Care 744 378 334 0 1456
George Kruis 815 171 439 0 1425
Maro Itoje 572 544 306 0 1422
Sam Simmonds 638 350 366 0 1354
Mike Brown 635 358 304 0 1297
Jamie George 569 274 359 0 1202
Dylan Hartley 513 349 329 0 1191
James Haskell 661 109 358 51 1179
Elliot Daly 430 400 295 0 1125
Kyle Sinckler 735 75 221 0 1031
Richard Wigglesworth 540 98 296 0 934
Joe Marler 507 108 220 0 835
Ben Te’o 414 247 0 0 661

Ireland squad for the England v Ireland Six Nations 2018 fixture, showing minutes played during the 2017/18 season by tournament.

Player Pro14 minutes Europe minutes Test minutes Total minutes
Jacob Stockdale 551 377 555 1483
CJ Stander 400 480 538 1418
Devon Toner 525 440 410 1375
Bundee Aki 463 346 535 1344
Conor Murray 373 452 509 1334
Iain Henderson 458 480 375 1313
Peter O’Mahoney 315 447 481 1243
Rob Kearney 267 243 549 1059
Jordan Larmour 785 176 65 1026
Tadhg Furlong 242 402 361 1005
Keith Earls 320 303 377 1000
Jordi Murphy 737 99 112 948
Sean Cronin 567 307 70 944
Jonny Sexton 247 193 497 937
Cian Healy 242 260 388 890
Kieran Marmion 486 230 133 849
Dan Leavy 330 145 363 838
Rory Best 148 192 476 816
Jack McGrath 312 219 218 749
James Ryan 160 211 353 724
Andrew Porter 402 42 233 677
Joey Carberry 299 182 121 602
Garry Ringrose 264 160 160 584