Height is might but small can still walk tall in land of giants

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The Independent Online
The comedy moment of the week came during television coverage last Saturday of the Five Nations international at Cardiff. As the Welsh team sang "Land Of My Fathers", or "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" as a couple of them managed to pronounce it, the camera panned along their faces. Its elevation increased higher and higher until it reached the grimly determined features of Derwyn Jones, fixed 6ft 10in up into the clouds. The cameraman then moved on down the line expecting the next player to be on the same level, but instead had to plunge, like some sit-com scene involving John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett, down to discover Robert Jones singing away some foot-and-a-half nearer the ground.

It was not the only moment of absurdity involving Wales's scrum-half. About 10 minutes into the game, the monstrous figure of Ben Clarke was seen swatting irritably at Jones, much as someone might set about an irritating mosquito with a rolled-up piece of newspaper. And about as successfully.

This is increasingly the lot of the normal-sized rugby player. Kyran Bracken, a perfectly respectable 5ft 10in, looks like one of Michael Jackson's undersized companions as he waits alongside the England line-out. Things can only get worse for Bracken: should Martin Bayfield or Martin Johnson be regarded as hopelessly under-sized for the modern game, Richard Metcalfe can be called up from the Under-21 side. Called up is the appropriate term, Metcalfe is 7ft 1in.

Rugby is not the only game where the big are getting bigger: tennis is dominated by 7ft Croats with nuclear-powered rackets; in rowing unless you can replace the bulbs in the clubhouse ceiling lights without recourse to a ladder, there is no point even trying to get in the boat; and in snooker, the man with the orang-utan reach is king.

There is nothing wrong with the tall getting their chance. It is just that in rugby, as the line-out grows ever more tactically significant, height becomes the prerequisite for at least half a dozen positions. In America, this has long been the way: the sporting role you take up has been predicted by physical dimensions rather than aptitude. If you're a beanpole, you play basketball; if you're big and wide, you're a linebacker; tall and fast, you're a wide receiver; perfect smile and buttocks a cheerleader would kill to get her pom-poms on and you're the quarterback.

It used to be one of the pleasures of rugby that it was a game which accommodated all physical shapes and conditions: Gareth Chilcott team- mates with Jeremy Guscott. But increasingly all levels of the game are aping the international way that height determines all. My nephew, for instance, a tall lad for his age with thighs the circumference of my waist, plays hooker for his school XV. Everywhere he goes, every coach he encounters, the reaction is the same: "Shouldn't a lad your size be in the line-out rather than throwing the ball in?" Never mind that he has precisely the right mix of rat-like cunning and the sadistic urge to perform keyhole surgery on opponents' shins using only his studs that makes the perfect hooker, should he progress further in the game, height obsession will inevitably force him into the second row.

Thus what happened on Sunday was particularly pleasurable. At Old Trafford came cheering evidence that height is not necessarily right. Leeds United brought a Brobdignagian team to play Manchester United in the FA Cup.

Even so their manager was worried they were not tall enough. His team lacked the suspended Brian Deane and Carlton Palmer and Howard Wilkinson foresaw trouble at set-pieces. Leeds fans must be enthused by the romance of that thought, incidentally, that their manager pays out nearly £6m, not for mazy dribbles or buckets full of goals but for the capacity to defend against a corner to the near post. In the event, Wilkinson, the man with the foresight to off-load Cantona, Batty and Vinnie Jones - and this season who could argue with that - was as prescient as ever. Leeds lost to three headers, all of them from players under six feet tall (and by the by, all over 30).

Brian Lara's XI 3, Curtly Ambrose's XI 1; it was a triumph of sensible proportions.

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