Back in 2015, shortly after Ireland’s successful defence of the Six Nations title, head coach Joe Schmidt was asked to explain further the IRFU’s player management process.

Most observers understand the genesis of the arrangement; key players are 'managed' at provincial level to ensure their game time outside the international window is monitored closely.

With rugby becoming ever more attritional, and concussion and career-threatening injuries a more common occurrence than before, the need to ensure players are optimally prepared for matches has never been more widely discussed.

The system has its critics, especially when it comes to the exclusion of players, such as Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, on foreign shores.

Schmidt has previously stated "there is no policy" to omit foreign-based players - "there is only an intention from the IRFU to best protect the provinces and the local game" - though few expect anyone outside Ireland featuring any time soon.

It also results on occasions in squad rotation, a sore point for fans hoping to see full-blooded, and more importantly, full-strength, interprovincial derbies.

The flip side has been obvious, with player welfare one of the key pillars to Ireland’s decorated success since Joe Schmidt took charge in 2013.

"To get the best use of those resources [the players] without, I suppose, killing the golden goose, it is about making sure that we look after their management in the best possible way that we can; particularly because they have provincial responsibilities and national responsibilities," Schmidt told RTÉ Sport's Michael Corcoran four years ago.

He explained that rather than assess players annually as had previously been the case, the decision was taken to make quarterly decisions on game management.

"Every quarter we have a look, and, you know, someone may have had an injury in the first quarter, and might need to catch up a bit of game time. Other people may have gone and played a little bit more than we would have liked, and we want to make sure that they get a little bit of a rest somewhere."

A significant difference between the Ireland team that began the Grand Slam campaign of 2009 and the Ireland team likely to take to the field next weekend is the minutes played up to the first game of the competition.

Injuries obviously skew results, but the starting XV that took the field at home to France had on average, 902 minutes of action under their belts by the time they checked into Six Nations camp.

Five years later, in Schmidt’s first taste of the competition as head coach, the average had dropped to 798. The trend has continued to fall.

Taking the team Schmidt selected against New Zealand in November and replacing the injured Kieran Marmion with the fit again Conor Murray, the average stands at 686 minutes.

In effect, players are playing two and a half games less than they were a decade ago.

As mentioned, injuries are a significant factor.

Paddy Wallace, preferred to Gordon D'Arcy at inside centre by Declan Kidney for the opener before losing his place for the final two games, suffered an injury set-back in the early part of the 2008/09 season that saw his game time reduced.

No one played fewer minutes than Wallace (655 minutes) on the team before the Six Nations opener, while a decade later, only eight players likely to take to the field Saturday will have exceeded that figure.

Similarly a knee injury in December 2013 meant Conor Murray was sidelined for a month in the lead-up to Schmidt’s opening Six Nations encounter.

The 28-6 defeat of Scotland was without the services of D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell, who cried off the week of the game, replaced by Ulster pair Luke Marshall and Dan Tuohy, both of whom had played significantly more rugby, 660 minutes to be precise, than the absent pair.

This year, the likes of Jacob Stockdale (hamstring), Johnny Sexton (leg) and Rob Kearney (shoulder) have battled different injuries along the way.

Where exactly player welfare, in the guise of being rested, comes into play can sometimes be open to interpretation. Is the player suffering a knock? Is he being forced to sit out provincial action to satisfy the Irish medical and management teams?

Crunching the numbers from the three teams over the last decade offers other intriguing insights.

Five starters from the 2009 team had played more than 1000 minutes before the Six Nations came around, with Brian O’Driscoll and David Wallace in the 900+ category.

Fast forward 10 years, and only Peter O’Mahony has reached a figure of at least 900 minutes.

The 2009 and 2014 XVs both feature players outside of the IRFU family.

Tommy Bowe, a try scorer in the Grand Slam clincher against Wales, was an Ospreys player at the time and had accumulated an incredible 1,320 minutes of club rugby prior to the tournament opener.

By contrast, it is more club rugby than Simon Zebo - 1,272 minutes - has played for Racing 92 this season.  

In the 2013-14 campaign, Johnny Sexton had racked up more than a 1000 minutes for the Parisian club before linking back up with the Irish camp.

In 2017 Schmidt suggested the heavy workload has impacted the out-half's subsequent soft tissues complaints.

"There is one player who went to Racing 92 who was played for the first 12 games in the season and I’m not sure he has ever had the same resilience since then," he said.

A glance across the pond and the Irish model would surely be the envy for England head coach Eddie Jones.

Last season Saracens out-half Owen Farrell played 944 minutes more for club and country than his Lions team-mate Sexton, a difference of more than 11 games.

Second row Maro Itoje featured in just four more games in 2017-18 than his opposite number James Ryan, but that equated to an extra 858 minutes of action.

"The premise that the programme exists solely for the benefit of the national team is a fallacy"

An IRFU spokesperson insisted the system is a huge benefit to both the provinces and young players, who are given opportunities while internationals are rested.

"The premise that the programme exists solely for the benefit of the national team is a fallacy. The programme exists to support performance across all of the IRFU’s professional teams, ensuring the players are primed to perform for province or national teams and hopefully have long careers within the Irish system. 

"One of the benefits of the player management system that often gets overlooked is the opportunity that is created when senior players are on regeneration weeks," he added.

"It is an essential element of Irish rugby’s talent development pathway and ensures young players are tested at an appropriate and challenging environment."

Matt O'Connor ruffled feathers with his criticism of the player management system

The provinces and the national team may be reaping the benefits, but it hasn't always been plain sailing at provincial level.

Then Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor shared his frustrations in 2015 regarding the player management system, stating that it was "debatable" how two-way the conversations between province and national team are in this area.

Schmidt and IRFU performance director David Nucifora emphatically shot down the Australian's suggestion that he only had access to his frontline players 30% of the time. A month later Leinster began the search for a new head coach.

The provinces have grown to work with the structures in place, but with injuries and further scrutiny over players' game time given the increasing demands of the game, less is more as far as the player welfare programme is concerned.

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