There were few surprises in the Scotland squad named to tour Japan this summer as Vern Cotter continued with the core of the group that saw the international side through the RWC and 6 Nations. With so few changes though, concerns have been raised as to whether some of those selected are being overplayed – but are these fears justified?
Kicking off in Dublin on the 15th of August and ending in Tokyo on the 25th of June, the national side will have played 16 Test matches in less than a year. A handful of players have played at least 10 games so far for Scotland through an extended season and attention seems to be focused on some of these key men – Al Dickinson, Ross Ford, WP Nel, Jonny Gray, Greig Laidlaw and Stuart Hogg. All six have certainly done their duty for club and country over the past 12 months:
As can be seen from the graphic above the players have seen plenty of action in 2015/16. However this has been managed more than initial perceptions might have suggested. None of the forwards are likely to play more minutes or games than they have in previous seasons – even if they do feature in both matches against Japan. Their workload will also probably be further adapted by delaying their start to pre-season training. They will also continue to benefit from not playing more than five consecutive games through next season and for some their game time will need to be balanced with the prospect of a Lions’ tour in summer 2017 in mind.
Stuart Hogg is the outlier among the group who are under the auspices of the SRU year round. He will undoubtedly finish the season having played more games and minutes than he ever has before – although this is maybe partly due to the player himself being protected in his early seasons while he was still developing physically (and some ‘discipline’ issues in season 2013/14!). As a full back he will face more sprints and probably cover more ground but he will take far less contact than his colleagues in the pack – for example despite playing similar minutes Hoggy has only had to make 34 tackles for Glasgow, which is 120 less than Jonny Gray!
How much is too much though? From the figures above it appears the SRU are certainly managing the players under their control full-time to around a maximum of 30 games and 2,000 minutes. There are few explicitly stated targets in this area. The RFU’s elite player agreement for example recommends a 32 game maximum – although this is a full 80 minutes per match so the limit is actually a fairly staggering 2,560 minutes which could be aggregated over far more than 32 fixtures.
Alex Corbisiero, the England and Lions prop who is currently taking a year long sabbatical to allow his body to recover from almost 10 years of attrition at rugby’s coalface, has spoken out on this topic in a recent interview with the Guardian. One of his key points was that any limits on playing time cannot be a one-size fits all strategy and understandably it’s the props, who spend almost the entire game engaged in physical confrontations, whose time he would like to see limited most. Given his own experiences he suggests props should not be involved in more than 25 games a season, at an average of 60 minutes per game (1,500 minutes per season). Any limit to that extent would have a fairly significant impact on players like Nel and Dickinson.
This is a difficult balancing act for coaches, players and governing bodies. It’s fairly easy for management to track player performance – they can see how key metrics drop off with playing time and the number of matches (and how it rebounds after a rest / week off). It’s much harder to assess the longer-term impact of wear and tear on these athletes. As things stand Scottish rugby’s protocols appear to be considerably stronger than those of their English counterparts – although still some way short of the sort of limits being suggested by some experts and towards which governing bodies may need to move closer if the sport is to protect its principal assets – the players.