We dreamed up this post lounging around on Northside grass, peeled grapes being handed to us by the Irish Times sports staff, having conned them into thinking we might need them to ghost an autobiography at some indistinct point in the future. But we soon realized the subject matter was far too serious for us, and we needed to rope in stats guru Andy McGeady for a joint post.
You’ll be able to tell who is responsible for what – the critical insight, relevant statistics and funny bits are from Andy, and the bitterness, carping and anti-Munster bias from us.
The issue of player welfare is something that will be big for us this year. Careers are getting shorter (Ian McKinley, Eoin O’Malley), the level of concern for serious injury differs among observers, and those players who are lucky enough to forge long and successful careers are increasingly paying for it with huge playing time. On this year’s Lions tour, Warren Gatland said that the physicality of rugby had gone up a notch since the last tour. It was a statement that left us reeling; the 2009 series in South Africa was so bruising you almost felt your ribcage tightening just watching it. The stakes are increasing all the time. And when the NFL, where owners readily acknowledge players are mere commodities, seems more concerned about managing careers than rugby, we got a problem.
Two cases in point: Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar.
Forget Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s most important player is nerdy Corkman Ross because if you don’t have a competent tighthead prop, you’re goosed. The opposition will milk you for penalties, and if you get away with giving up 12 points from this source, you’ve done well. Consider the last time Ireland had to do without an effective tighthead for a big game – in Twickenham in 2012 when Tom Court was forced to deputize for the crocked Ross. Shudders. This isn’t a Court diatribe of course, he is a loosehead by trade and was pressed into service through necessity, but merely illustrates the point.
Not only are tighthead props the most important players on the pitch, they are also typically the biggest (BBC infographics seem to delight in broadcasting the weight of Ireland’s tighthead) and strongest. The power output has increased to the extent that in the Southern Hemipshere and France, a prop isn’t expected to last longer than 60 minutes, with a new front row often introduced en masse between 50 and 55 minutes.
In Ireland, however, we are milking Mike Ross to a terrifically dunderheaded extent. Ross has played every game of note in the last three years for Leinster, and, once he saw off the ‘spirited challenge’ of Mushy, every game possible for Ireland in two and a half. And this is literally every game possible. When Ireland played a disinterested (for multiple reasons: the IRFU didn’t give them the respect of playing a full test, and they had just buried a team-mate) Fiji in November, Ross was required to tog out to prove his fitness. Then in June, when we toured North America, it was decreed we needed Ross to see off Shawn Pittman (London Welsh) and Hubert Buydens (Prairie Wolf Pack). Why?
By the end of last season, Ross looked completely shattered, markedly less effective and in need for a long rest more than anything. Was it really necessary to fly him around the world to steady the scrum? Frankly, without Ross, Ireland would struggle to win a game in the Six Nations, never mind against a Southern Hemisphere giant.
Ruan Pienaar, in turn, is Ulster’s marquee man and their key playmaker. He joined the brethren from the Sharks after the Tri-Nations of 2010, and has not only played every game of note Ulster have had (in both the HEC and the Magners/Pro12), he’s been involved in every Springbok squad in that time – encompassing a World Cup, two Rugby Championships, a Tri-Nations, three November tours and three June tours. Not much time for day trips to Bangor, that’s for sure.
Maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s the more rarified level Ulster are operating at now, but Pienaar seems notably less effervescent than he was two years ago – at the tail end of last year, he looked mentally jaded and unimaginative. Paddy Jackson and the speedsters outside sometimes rarely saw the ball, aside from chasing box-kicks and fielding delayed passes. For Ulster to take the next step in their development, which is often the hardest one, and win some silverware, they’ll need their best players fully engaged and in top form.
In Mendoza on Saturday, Pienaar was ponderous and indecisive – it was a miracle (and a shame) he lasted 80 minutes. Perhaps if Anscombe is honest, he’ll think that a month in the Caribbean for his best player might maximise the chance of him being where Ulster need him by April and May. Sadly, with the behemoth packs of Leicester and Montpellier to negotiate, the chances of that happening seem precisely zero. But enough speculation – this is where we hand over to stats man Andy McGeady…
When the gentlemen of Whiff of Cordite brought up the subjects of Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar I did what I am wont to do – I took out the pad and paper, scratched a few things down and had a good, solid mull.
Then I fired up the stats machine.
And I peered inside.
Mike Ross, as Leinster and Ireland’s number one tight head prop forward, is a singularly important player in Irish rugby. And, yes, last season he indeed played a very large number of minutes compared to his contemporaries in European top level rugby.
Note: the stats used are from the 2012/13 season proper, i.e. the same information that would have been to hand before people flew off to various summer tours.
Of all Rabodirect Pro 12, Aviva Premiership and Orange Top 14 props only six men played more minutes of domestic, European (Heineken/Amlin Cup) and international rugby than the ex-Harlequins man managed during the 2012/13 season.
Mike Ross is thirty three-years old.
1867 minutes of rugby at an average of 64 minutes per outing is a decent shift for a top level front row, especially so at that age.
But he is also thirty-three years young.
Mike Ross might have a birth certificate bearing the year 1979, but between professional club and test level rugby he doesn’t have as many rugby miles on the clock as others.
Fellow thirty-three year old Carl Hayman, for example, played the last of his 45 tests for New Zealand in 2007. Ross first pulled on an Irish test jersey in 2009 playing two summer tests against Canada and the USA, not featuring again in a test side until playing Italy in Rome in 2011.
Since then, of course, Ross has been a regular for Ireland but with just five weeks in age between himself and Hayman the contrast between the two couldn’t be more stark.
And it wasn’t just in the international arena where Ross was a late starter; it took the former UCC and Cork Con man some time to nail down a regular first team slot with a top side, becoming a regular with Harlequins in the 2006-07 season. Depending on how you look at it Ross has made between one and two fewer season’s worth of top level club appearances than the other capped thirty-and-overs in that list, Tom Court excepted.
That’s something to think about. It’s a Matt-Stevens-worth of games, after all.
Ruan Pienaar, like Ross, was the most flogged horse at his position in his league over the 2012/13 season, sitting in third place on the most-minutes-played list of halves currently plying their trade in the European game.
Jonny Wilkinson and Rory Kockott might have both played more raw minutes than the South African but neither had to cope with the more rigorous physical and mental demands of the international game (not to mention travel to, literally, all four corners of the globe). The fourth placed Ian Madigan, just behind Pienaar on the list, had just 62 minutes of international rugby in that time (Ronan O’Gara had 78, for those scoring at home).
The IRFU will have no real say in how often Pienaar plays for Ulster, or at what position, perhaps with the exception of suggesting quietly that Paddy Jackson might be offered some time over the kicking tee in live games.
Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching staff will, however, have some control over the number of minutes that Mike Ross spends rambling around paddocks in the blue of Leinster or green of Ireland. But whether his odometer or registration plate is the more accurate gauge, perhaps only the man himself will know.
Credit: individual playing time stats courtesy of Opta (player ages added from other sources)
Thanks to Andy McGeady for his contribution. Visit his own excellent site here.