All Blacks Rugby – A Week of High Hits and Referee Leniency?

Last year’s British and Irish Lions tour contained a real collector’s item.

No, not a Lions team that was finally competitive in the Land of the Long White Cloud, but that the All Blacks were shown a red card in a test match, when Sonny Bill Williams planted his shoulder in to the prone head of Anthony Watson.

This was the All Blacks’ third red card in their history and the first for 50 years! It was also their first ever red card on home soil.

There are plenty of scientific studies that show referees in a number of sports tend to subconsciously favour the favourite team and with rugby’s laws being so open to subjectivity and personal “interpretation”, it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of these officials’ decisions have a material impact on the game.

The All Blacks have set the benchmark on the rugby pitch for decades but there has been a sense that their sporting dominance has been aided by a reticence from officials to properly punish them, whether these were the sort of technical offences that  Richie McCaw was so adept at avoiding or incidents of serious foul play.

For those that believe referees show a leniency towards the men in black, this week brought up a number of controversial incidents to add to the charge list.

Sunday 3rd June: Baby All Blacks (u20) v Wales u20

There were 4 controversial moments in this game, 3 acts of foul play and one disallowed penalty try. Let’s look at each incident.

(1) Tackle in the air on Cai Evans (Wales full back)

New Zealand kick the ball and it bounces in the air for the Welsh full back to take. Evans gets up in the air first but the chasing All Black doesn’t look at the ball but instead just clatters in to Evans in the air.

Neither the referee nor the TMO deemed this worthy of looking at again and it wasn’t penalised.

Our view: There was no competition for the ball and by the (badly drafted) World Rugby guidance it was at least a yellow card. If Evans lands initially on his upper back/head it should be a red.

(2) Wales have a call for a penalty try disallowed due to a deliberate knock on by New Zealand

The referee does refer this one to the TMO but they decide that there was covering defence so no penalty try was awarded. The offending All Black was given a yellow card.

Our view: It was certainly a yellow card and there is a good case for a penalty try. The freeeze frame below shows the ball as it just strikes the New Zealand hand, with the Wales winger having a clear run. Would a try probably have been scored?

u20 pt

(3) No attempt to tackle with the arms in a hit on Cai Evans

Unfortunately for Cai Evans he’s again the subject of All Black foul play as their flanker (Tom Florence) makes no effort to wrap the arms in the tackle and puts a stiff arm directly in to his face.

The referee did refer this to the TMO but judged it to be a yellow card offence only.

Our view: Since the new guidance came in around tackles/hits to the head and neck area we have tended to see wrap tackles that directly hit the head with some force being a yellow card offence.

In this tackle, there is no attempt to wrap the arms at all and the “stiff arm” that connects with the head indicates that this is an attempt to cause deliberate harm rather than make a tackle.

(4) Late hit to the head of Ioan Nicholas by Tanielu Tele’a

Image from @smallclone on Twitter

This one went to the TMO who deemed it a yellow card offence, even though Nicholas had blood clearly visible in his mouth from a strike to the head.

Tele’a was subsequently cited for the incident and given a 3 week ban. The disciplinary committee determined that Tele’a had led with his shoulder and recklessly struck Nicholas’ head.

Our view: This was an easy one to spot. How can the TMO/referee come to such a different conclusion than the disciplinary committee?

In our view the referee’s decisions on all 4 incidents favoured the Baby All Blacks. A clear red card was missed and the tackle in the air was also a minimum of a yellow card.

Even at u20 level do officials feel under pressure to not penalise the All Blacks as they would other teams? If Japan had commits these 4 offences would the referee have come to the same 4 outcomes?

Saturday 9th June: New Zealand v France 

This game contained 3 controversial moments.

(1) Yellow card for France’s Paul Gabrillagues for a “seat belt” tackle

The tackle from the side or behind, where the arm comes over the shoulder has been outlawed by World Rugby and popularly coined the “seat belt tackle”.  With the scores even referee Luke Pearce gave a yellow card to the French lock Gabrillagues for exactly this type of tackle.


Thanks to @smallclone on Twitter for this gif.


Pearce didn’t refer the incident to the TMO and made a quick decision to give a yellow card. New Zealand then went on to score 2 tries while he was off the field and 1 more just after he returned to play.

Our view: The tackle was a classic seat belt incident with no contact made to the ball carrier’s head or neck. It’s a penalty only and has been all season.


(2) Double hit (Sam Cane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi) on winger Remy Grosso

Here are two different views of the hit on Grosso

The first attempt at a tackle is by Sam Cane who swings an arm directly in the face of Grosso.

Tu’ungafasi then comes in with a shoulder directly in to the face of the French winger, in a manner not dissimilar to Sonny Bill Williams hit on Watson in the Lions tour.

Pearce’s view was that it was “just a penalty mate”.

Our view: Cane’s tackle in isolation deserves a yellow card. Put it in the context of the earlier French yellow card for a seat belt tackle and the decision from Pearce is even more baffling.

The Tu’ungafasi hit was a cynical attempt to harm an opposition and in that respect he succeeded given the reports that Grosso has suffered a double fracture to the face. This was a stonewall red card.

A pattern of leniency?

The two games this week have added a large body of evidence to the theory that referees treat New Zealand differently from other nations.  In all these big calls the All Blacks have benefited from very generous decisions.

Was the All Blacks v France game too big a step for the young English referee who had yet to take charge of a tier 1 v tier 1 fixture? Are officials subconsciously influenced in their decision making processes by the colour of the shirt rather than the offence they witness?

Does the reverence and respect demanded by World Rugby for the haka have some effect in the way referees feel they can treat the All Blacks players?

There is no doubt that when it comes to playing the game New Zealand are a level above the rest, but it would be nice though if this gap was closed by officials who have the courage to apply the correct sanctions, regardless of the colour of the jersey.

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5 of the Best Pick Ups – Steyn, Larmour, Tomos Williams, BOD and Beauden Barratt

If you have ever tried to pick a rugby ball up on the run, you’ll appreciate how hard it is.  Add in some more complicating factors such as using one hand, having a defender in close proximity and it being a high profile final and you have one of the most difficult skills on the rugby pitch.

Leinster’s Jordan Larmour executed a stunning pick up in the Pro 14 final which got us thinking – what were the other great pick ups over the years.

Here’s our top 5, in no particular order:

Jordan Larmour (May 2018 – Leinster v Scarlets)


Tomos Williams (May 2018 – Cardiff Blues v Gloucester)


Beauden Barratt (2017 – New Zealand v Lions)


Brian O’Driscoll (2010 – Ireland v New Zealand)



Francois Steyn (2008 – Italy v South Africa)


Have we missed any other examples?


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3 Simple Steps to Help Your Next Child Get an International Test Cap

Step 1 – Find a suitable partner to mate with

Step 2 – Create a relaxing atmosphere; candles, alcohol, soft music or even 100 great rugby  tries on VHS can help create an intimate occasion

Step 3 – mate with partner; ideally around Christmas time or up to June. Avoid August to the end of November at all costs


Step 3 is crucial to the chances of your child making the grade as an international rugby player and in this article we will explain why, but firstly a bit of background to the concepts discussed here.

Way back when, your author was involved in a high level schools’ rugby game (under 16/17) where each squad member was asked to give their full name and date of birth. What struck the author was the large percentage of players in the room who were born in the first few months of the academic year (September to say January). Not only was your author a September birth but it also seemed that most of the squad were too.

This concept stuck in the author’s head until he read the book  Super Freakonomics about 15 years later and there was the same pattern explained in glorious serious sounding academic speak.

In Super Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discusses how youth football leagues in Europe have a December 31 cutoff, and over time we see a higher percentage of players born in the months after the cutoff make the top youth teams.

The explanation is that this cutoff applies from a young age, so kids born in January have a natural advantage in terms of physical development than those born later in the calendar year. They are often faster, stronger and more mature than their younger peers.

A coach will therefore pick the kids who are faster and stronger, who will tend to be the older kids. This bias then remains through the years and in to youth sport.

At an U17 European Championship, 75% of the footballers were born in a four month window.

Would this same pattern be visible in international rugby? Would we see more players capped who were born in the months after the cut off (the start of the academic year) or would the bias even out in to adult test rugby?


Effect of Birth Month in Wales Test Rugby

To test the theory, we determined the birth month of every capped Welsh international from the most recent (Elliot Dee) back to cap number 398 (capped around the mid 1920s).  This is a total of 745 capped individuals.

This date was chosen as the cut-off because it was only a few years before this that education was made compulsory in the UK until the age of 14.

This is the split by birth month.

number caps by month

A glance at this data indicates lows in the months of May (54) and August (47), with a peak in November (72).

This doesn’t give a full picture though, because we know that births are not equally distributed across the year – some months have more births than others.

Using data from the Office of National Statistics across the UK (from 1995 to 2014), we can find out the actual spread of births for each month and therefore what the expected number of caps per month would be, assuming the cap distribution matches the distribution in the ONS data.

The difference between the actual number of caps per birth month and the expected number of caps (from the ONS data), then tells us if Welsh test rugby shows an age bulge. The data is shown below:

actual v expeced caps

The graphic below shows (in red) the months where the actual number of capped Wales internationals is lower than the number we would expect, given the nautural distribution of births throughout the year.  Similarly, those months in blue are where the number of capped players is higher than we would normally expect.

graphic expected caps v actual


August stands out. Just 47 capped players were born in this month – which happens to be the month with the 3rd highest number of births. We would expect 64 players to be born in this month, so why were so few capped (17 fewer than expected or 27%)

If we then group the data by quarter (where quarter 1 is September, October and November) we get a clear picture of the “age bulge”.


If you are born in the first half of the year your chances of playing test rugby are higher than if you were born in the second half.

The variances may not be as extreme as the example quoted above (75% of players in a youth European Championship football tournament were born in a 4 month window) but they do indicate an “age bulge” that seems to pivot around the start of the school year (the data for September doesn’t fit the trend though).


What does this mean for rugby?

It would be useful to extend this analysis to other test nations and professional leagues to see if the same pattern holds.

If the pattern is found across the professional game it could have implications for the way we approach rugby at school and youth level.

Should we look at the NZ model, where younger players are often streamed by weight rather than age? How do we encourage those players that are not so physically developed at a younger age, to remain in the sport until their physical disadvantages are no longer prevalent?

Should there be more of an emphasis on enjoyment of sport at a younger level, rather than a focus on winning?

Ultimately – if this pattern is true, we are missing out on huge amounts of talent that should be playing the game at the top level but are being lost along the way.


Please let us know your thoughts on this area.

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When Did Referees Become Coaches? Examples From Leinster v Racing 92

Depending on your view point, the 2017 6 Nations fixture between England and Italy will be remembered as a game with a masterstroke of tactical coaching or one which rendered the game of rugby a farce.

The Italian tactic of not competing at the tackle when defending – and therefore not forming an offside line, had England’s senior players flummoxed. Dylan Hartley and James Haskell were forced in to a long conversation with referee Romain Poite about the legality of the tactic and how they could force a ruck to be formed.

Towards the end of the conversation Poite said to the England players, “I’m the referee, not the coach”.

Of course he’s right, he isn’t the coach but for a number of years we have seen the creeping practise of officials proactively “coaching” teams by issuing instructions in an attempt to reduce the number of infringements and maintain the flow of the game.

What do we mean by referees coaching players?

Watch any game of top level rugby and you will commonly hear these phrases being used by the referee:

  • “Stop winger, don’t move forward” – an instruction to a winger (or any other player), who is in front of a kicker and starts to move forward in an offside position
  • “You’re outside the 22” – informing the scrum half that he will be passing the ball back in to the 22m and therefore the ball can’t be kicked out on the full
  • “Don’t go in there/hands off/you’re off your feet” – the myriad of directives used at the ruck
  • “The ball’s out” – informing teams that the ball has come out of the back of the scrum or ruck and in to ope play
  • “Release. The tackle’s complete” – telling players when the tackled player gets a knee to the ground and the tackle is officially completed

These are a few examples, but there are lots more. In these circumstances the intention of the referee is honourable; to reduce the number of offences by informing a team that they are about to offend.  A game with fewer penalties must be a good thing for rugby as a spectacle?

Is referee coaching a positive thing?

This proactive coaching raises a few questions. The most fundamental is should referees be proactively helping teams to reduce their penalty count? Surely one of the basic requirements of top level rugby is that teams should know the laws and it’s their responsibility to play within them?

Why should teams that play within the rules at all times not receive the credit for doing so? This advantage is negated to an extent when the referee points out potential offences to both teams.

On a more detailed level, why are some offences called out before they happen and others aren’t?

We also often see at the end of the game, when a team is pushing for those crucial last points that the referee will do even more coaching, in an effort to stop the game being decided on a technical penalty. Is this fair, given the same level of coaching hasn’t been applied throughout the game?

Another aspect to proactive referee coaching is that there is the suspicion that teams are now willing to offend, until the referee tells them not to. The onus has therefore shifted from the players not offending to the offence being permitted until the referee tells a player to stop doing it.

As an example, take the ruck situation where a jackal is off his feet but still playing the ball. Instead of the player instantly releasing the ball, it’s commonplace for him to hold on to it, knowing it only becomes an offence when the referee tells them “off your feet, leave it”.

Leinster v Racing – examples of coaching

The weekend’s big Champions Cup final was decided by just 3 points. No tries were scored and 9 penalties were slotted over.

Which penalties were given by referee Wayne Barnes were pretty much a lottery, as is often the case at this level.

He seemed to be focusing on high hits as the offence du jour but Devin Toner seemed to have one of the Racing players around the head in front of Barnes in those final moments. This was a penalty throughout the rest of the game but not then. It’s a lottery.

Those final phases of the game, where Racing were trying to get in to position for the drop goal, contain a number of great examples of referee coaching, which we will focus on in a bit more detail.

After Leinster’s final penalty to take a 15-12 lead, Racing 92 restarted with 78.41 on the clock and regathered the ball to launch their final attack. Let’s look at each phase and what (if any) instructions were issued by Barnes:

Ruck 1 – no instructions

Ruck 2 – Barnes asks the Leinster defence to step back in to an offside position

Ruck 3/4/5 – no instructions

Ruck 6 – Barnes indicates for Leinster’s defence to hold their defensive line

Ruck 7/8/9 – no instructions

Ruck 10 – “tackle, away you come” and then points at a Leinster player and says “don’t go in there”

Ruck 11 – points at the Leinster pillar defence and says “no”

Ruck 12 – no instructions

Ruck 13 – shouts “no Andrew, no” as Andrew looks like he might attempt a jackal

Ruck 14 – Barnes signals for the Leinster defence to keep back

After 2 minutes of play, and 14 phases Racing take a premature drop kick attempt and the game is lost.

If we look at a clip from ruck 13, we see a very good example of the referee influencing the game proactively.

If Barnes hadn’t have shouted at Porter would he have gone in and tried to win the ball, giving away a penalty in the process? We won’t know.


Do we want more of less referee coaching?

Let’s be clear, referee coaching effects games and therefore the outcome of games. If it didn’t have a material impact on a game World Rugby wouldn’t be pushing their officials to take this approach.

There are certainly areas where a proactive approach from referees benefits the game, in particular where there is ambiguity around a specific scenario. For example, telling both teams that a tackled player’s knee is on the ground and the tackle has been made, benefits everyone and clears up any ambiguity.

In other aspects of the game the referee’s intervention isn’t required – telling players not to advance in an offside position, asking the defensive team to take their hands off the ball at the breakdown when the ruck has obviously formed. These offences are obvious.

With a refinement of the use of proactive referee coaching, this should also lead to an overall reduction in offences, if players take responsibility for their own actions and not rely on the referee to inform them when they are offending.

Imagine a world where players did actually release the ball when they went off their feet and not just when told to by a referee.

There are benefits to the proactive approach but there’s an argument to say that its scope has become too wide and is actually leading to more offences on the pitch.


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The Game’s Gone Soft? A List of Rugby Players Forced to Retire Due to Brain Injuries

It’s a comment often heard on social media, by rugby commentators and even from players themselves – “the game’s gone soft”!

In fact, rugby at the top level has never been harder and by “harder” we mean more dangerous.

If you do hear the “game’s gone soft” comment again, please point the individual in the direction of this list, which is a compilation of players who have cited head traumas or brain injuries as the sole (or major contributing factor) to their retirement from rugby.

It doesn’t include those who are still playing rugby having suffered serious complications from head traumas (North, Sexton, Lambie, Brown etc), nor does it include those players that may not have been completely open about the reasons for their retirement.

If there are any players missing off this list please let us know and we will try and keep it up to date.

The threat of serious brain injuries from rugby incidents isn’t a hypothetical scenario; it’s real and the implications are visible now.

There are currently 43 players on this list.



Nic Berry (Wasps, Racing Metro, Queensland Reds) – a “concussive episode” during the season opener against Harlequins has forced him to quit the game


Finlay Barnham (Leicester Tigers Academy, Nottingham) – retired after taking medical advice following a six-month spell on the sidelines recovering from concussion


Mouritz Botha (Sharks, Saracens, Newcastle, England) – retired from professional rugby at the age of 35, on medical advice related to concussion


Shontayne Hape (Bath, London Irish, Montpellier, England) – retired after repeated concussion incidents

Andy Hazell (Gloucester, England) – forced to retire after failing to recover from a pre-season concussion injury


David Jackson (Nottingham) – retired on medical grounds after suffering a head injury in pre-season training


Michael Lipman (Melbourne Rebels, Bristol, Bath, England) – Lipman admitted he’d had “possibly 30” concussions in a 12-year career


Kat Merchant (England Women) – retired in 2014 on medical advice, after sustaining a number of concussions during her career


Jon Pendlebury (Gloucester, Leeds Carnegie) – commented that he had received a number of concussions during the season



Marie-Alice Yahe (France Women’s captain) – retired due to repeated concussion events




Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster, Ireland) – retires on medical advice after receiving a number of concussions


John Fogarty (Leinster, Ireland) – retired from rugby as a result of difficulties brought about by repeated concussions


Bernard Jackman (Connacht, Leinster, Sale, Ireland) – retired because of repeated concussion – Jackman had 20 over three seasons


Ben Marshall (Leinster, Connacht, Emerging Ireland) – forced to retire from professional rugby based on medical advice following a concussion injury


Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster, Ireland) – retired from rugby on medical grounds after a neurologist raised concerns over issues related to concussion


Dave McSharry (Connacht) – retired after suffering multiple concussions


Nathan White (Waikato, Connacht, Ireland) – retired from professional rugby on medical advice following a concussion he sustained in March 2016


Cillian Willis (Leinster, Connacht, Ulster, Sale) – forced to retire at 28 due to concussion


New Zealand

Ben Afeaki (Chiefs, New Zealand) – retired with ongoing concussion symptoms following a head clash with team mate Brodie Retallick


Kane Barrett (Taranaki, Blues)  – took an elbow to the jaw while training with the Auckland Blues in March 2014. He hasn’t played since.


David Briggs (Taranaki, Chiefs, Tonga) – “I had heaps of concussions. I suffered depression big-time from those head knocks. I don’t think I will ever be right. I accept I will have depression for the rest of my life and a lot of memory loss”


James Broadhurst (Taranaki, Canterbury, Hurricanes, New Zealand) – called it a day on rugby after being badly concussed in the Taranaki v Wellington provincial clash in August 2015


Dan Bowden (multiple clubs including Blues, Highlanders and Crusaders) – mentioned that he had “struggled with concussions” in his statement explaining his retirement


Shane Christie (Highlanders) – forced to retire in May 2018 due to ongoing symptoms from a concussion he suffered back in 2016


Craig Clarke (Chiefs, Connacht) – retired at 30 after suffering his 10th concussion in 22 months


Shane Cleaver (Taranaki, Chiefs) – retired due to concussion complications


Steve Devine (Auckland, Blues, New Zealand) – numerous concussions suffered during his decade long career resulted in specialists advising the 30-year-old that it was time to give up the game


Jason Eaton (Hurricanes, La Rochelle, New Zealand) – suffered a head knock playing against Clermont in 2018 and has decided to retire at the end of this season because his symptoms haven’t improved.


Reggie Goodes (Wellington, Hurricanes) – retired on medical advice after suffering multiple concussions


Leon MacDonald (Canterbury, Crusaders, New Zealand) –  prompted to retire due to a serious concussion, suffered playing for Kintetsu in a pre-season game in Japan


Sean Polwart (Auckland, Blues and Chiefs) –  announced his retirement from rugby because of a concussion received on the training field in February 2015


Mark Reddish (Harlequins, Wellington, Hurricanes, Highlanders) – retired from rugby for medical reasons after suffering a concussion


Jayden Spence (Otago, Union Bordeaux Begles) – retired in 2018 after suffering a number of concussion issues


Dan Waenga (Chiefs, Biarittz) – played his last game in 2015 and retired after medical advice following  12 concussion incidents

Dan describes some of his symptoms at the bottom of the article below, which included depression, anxiety and sleeping up to 18 hours a day.–biarritz-olympique-victime-commotion-cerebrale-dan-waenga-prendre-retraite-2108151033.php


South Africa

Alistair Hargreaves (Sharks, Saracens, South Africa) – retired after suffering “a number of concussions” in the last couple of seasons



Adam Hughes (Dragons, Bristol, Exeter) – “A neurologist said that playing rugby wasn’t an option due to two major trauma scars that I had sustained on my brain”


Matthew Pewtner (Dragons) – the player failed to recover from a head injury


Ashley Smith (Dragons) – retired after suffering a “series of concussive events”


Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys, Worcester, Wales) – retired at the age of 32 after being diagnosed with epilepsy that is thought to have been brought on from multiple head traumas


Rory Watts Jones (Cardiff Blues) – forced to retire through concussion aged 26


Other Nations

Ben Bolger (UAE) – retired after suffering 2 head injuries in 2 weeks


Aaron Carpenter (Coventry, Plymouth Albion, Cornish Pirates, London Welsh,  Doncaster, Canada) -retired after a number of head injuries


Cameron Pierce (Pau, Canada) – Twitter profile states “rugby player retired from concussions”



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Myth buster #1: Do Ireland’s Best Players Play Away in the Pro 14?

This is the first article looking at the legitimacy of some of the “facts” that you often read in rugby discussions – we will aim to find out if they are true or not.

First up, is the often quoted statement that Ireland’s best players don’t play away fixtures in the Pro14.

A few weeks ago we looked in detail at how Ireland’s Lions’ players had a longer recovery period before the start of the 2017/18 domestic season and how the Ireland match day squad that played against England in the final game of the 6 Nations had played 4.5 games fewer than their English counterparts.

When we looked at where these 4.5 games were “lost” we could see that they were primarily attributed to the Irish players player fewer games in the Pro14.

minutes played


If we think in terms of match preparation and player management we can go another level down from this headline data and look at where the games were played; is it true that Irish players don’t play away Pro14 fixtures, so helping with fatigue and match preparation?


Do Ireland’s Top Players Play Away in the Pro 14?

To answer this question we looked at the starting XV in the England 6 Nations game and identified the minutes played in the Pro14 in the 2017/18 season to date, and whether these were home or away.

ireland play away

The data shows us a few useful pieces of information:

  • Ireland’s top players don’t play many minutes or games in the Pro14
  • They have appeared in an average of 4.9 fixtures, but clocked up an average of 317 minutes per game (less than 4 full games)
  • There is a large variation between players when we look at the split of home minutes played against away minutes – Johnny Sexton hasn’t played a single away minute in the Pro 14 this season, why all of James Ryan’s appearances have been away

If we average out the minutes played home and away we get a 47/53 split. Based on this we can say that Ireland’s top players play as many minutes away as they do at home – in fact they play slightly more.


Where do they play?

We know there isn’t on average a big difference between the home and away appearances of Ireland’s top players but it is interesting to analyse where they play the away games.

The pie chart (remember these from school) gives a breakdown of where the away minutes are played (green = Ireland, red = Wales, dark blue = Italy, black = South Africa and light blue = Scotland).

ireland play away minutes


Nearly 70% of the minutes the Irish team members played in the Pro 14 this season has been at other Irish provinces. This is perhaps not surprising given the number of Irish teams and the emphasis on derby games in the fixture list, but it does show that when we say Irish players “play away”, we usually mean another fixture in Ireland.

If we break this down by player and show the away minutes played against other Irish teams and then “others” we get the following graphic.

by player outside ireland.jpg


This shows that the 4 Munster players haven’t played a single minute of Pro 14 rugby outside Ireland so far this season (the same is true of Tadhg Furlong). 3 of the players (Murray, O’Mahony and Stander) played in games against Leinster and Connacht while Earls played in those two fixtures plus a visit to Ulster.

Only 1 player (Dan Leavy) has played some game time in Scotland against Glasgow, with just 3 appearances in Italy and 2 in South Africa.


Myth busting?

Yes. Based on this data, it is not true that Ireland’s best players don’t play away in the Pro14.

What is true though is that they don’t travel very far when they do travel – a trip to another Irish province is the norm.

Is this another factor in Ireland’s excellent player management programme?


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Ireland and England; Lions Recovery and Player Management (Helping Ireland Win the Grand Slam?)

The 6 Nations finale was meant to be a head to head between Eddie Jones’ resurgent England and a powerful Ireland, 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 over as a spectacle by the start of the 2nd half.

From our seat, England looked knackered; devoid of energy and impetus, with Ireland 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 in to 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.

lions players minutes spent.jpg

Although there is a large spread in the number of minutes played 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 3 test matches (below).

lions test minutes.jpg

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 the 8th July. The Pro14 and Aviva Premiership domestic seasons started on the weekend of the 1/2/3 September 2017.

If we now look at the players who who picked in the final Lions squad against New Zealand in the 3rd test, and research their return date to domestic rugby we see a very interesting pattern.

lions minute to 1st domestic game

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.  Next came Wasps players and then those from the Welsh regions. Interestingly 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 of the season (2nd September) and played the full 80 minutes for the first 4 games of the season, while his colleague Owen Farrell, who had played every minute of the 3 Lions tests, returned a week later on the 9th.

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

This means that Owen Farrell’s season will have been nearly 3 weeks longer than Johnny Sexton’s by the time they met in Twickenham at the end of the 6 Nations.

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

The return dates are just one aspect of player welfare, so now let’s focus on the number of game minutes played over the whole 2017/18 season, up to the end of the England v Ireland game.


(3) Minutes played over the whole season 

Using the club websites, ESPN and the Aviva Premiership website we can break down the number of minutes of playing time each player in the match day squad for the England versus Ireland fixture has made during the season, and split this out by domestic (Pro14/Aviva Premiership), European and international games.

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 have 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 6 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, 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):

Tight head:  Dan Cole (1557 minutes) v Tadhg Furlong (1005)

Loose head: 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, with 9 England players in front of him with more minutes.

total minutes graph

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

minutes played


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, although Ulster have only played 16).

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 6 Nations tournament.

Of course this isn’t the only factor 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 factor.



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England squad for the England v Ireland 6 Nations 2018 fixture, showing minutes played during the 2017/18 season, by tournament.

england total minutes


Ireland squad for the England v Ireland 6 Nations 2018 fixture, showing minutes played during the 2017/18 season, by tournament.

ireland minutes.jpg