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.
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).
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.
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.
If we then look at the breakdown of where the minutes have been played we see an interesting pattern:
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.
Ireland squad for the England v Ireland 6 Nations 2018 fixture, showing minutes played during the 2017/18 season, by tournament.