Rugby: Forwards did not always feel the need to add an inch or so to their height and perhaps more than a pound to their weight

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"When once you have thought of big men and little men," said Samuel Johnson, "it is very easy to do all the rest." The great doctor was criticising Gulliver's Travels. He might just as well have been talking about the England rugby team.

At the very beginning, we come to a mystery. Not only is the English pack collectively becoming taller and heavier, individual forwards seem to have been growing at an alarming rate as well.

Take, for example, Jason Leonard. When he joined the England front row six years ago, he was a modest 5ft 9in, the same height as Brian Moore (who may have been exaggerating slightly), with the tight-head prop, Jeff Probyn, at 5ft 10in. After a couple of seasons, Leonard had grown to the same height as Probyn. There he remained comfortably until this season when, according to last Saturday's programme, he has now reached 6ft and 17st 7lb.

The latter is easy to believe. We most of us put on weight as we grow older. I have also heard of people who shrink slightly with age. What I have never heard of before was someone of 28, Leonard's age, who had managed to put on a whole three inches in his 20s. This is clearly a case either of a medical phenomenon which deserves further investigation or of simple exaggeration.

Forwards did not always feel the need to add an inch or so to their height and perhaps more than a pound or so to their weight. That fine Welsh front row of the early 1950s, Cliff Davies, Dai Davies and John Robins, were respectively 5ft 9in, 13st 7lb; 5ft 11in, 12st 10lb; and 5ft 91/2in, 14st. The contemporary lock forwards Rees Stephens and Roy John were respectively 6ft 2in, 15st and 6ft 4in, 13st7lb.

In present-day rugby, Stephens would have been restricted to No 7, while John - one of the greatest line-out jumpers of the entire post-war period - would have been advised to take up basketball instead. Not only were these Welsh front five forwards smaller than their English equivalents last Saturday, they were smaller than the Italian front five as well.

Forwards may now feel a need to exaggerate their height and weight to impress the selectors. But they have grown genuinely bigger, much bigger, at the same time. That, indeed, is why they add the odd inch or the extra pound. It is because they have to be big. Jack Rowell, who is himself tall, has a well-known regard for big men. But we have surely reached the height of absurdity when a knowledgeable reporter can write, as someone did the other day, that at 6ft 3in, 16st, Chris Sheasby is "too small" to be an international No 8.

Sheasby had an outstanding game. I think he will have been done an injustice if Rowell does not retain him in the side (for I am writing this before they have been named). At 29 - he will be 30 on 30 November - his time has been long in coming.

I have always had a certain sympathy with him not so much because of his alleged smallness as because he is the kind of player who is always being accused of not doing his fair share of hard graft. The unjust assumption is that he would not be able to run about in the open if he struggled in the tight. Andy Ripley was another victim of this fallacy. Yet another is George Graham, who would have been the Scottish tight-head prop long ago if he had not possessed the misfortune to be quick on his pins.

There are two solutions to the size problem. I disregard the third possible one, which is to organise rugby on a similar basis to boxing, in weight divisions. The first solution is simply to get hold of bigger forwards.

There is no racial or genetic reason why Italy should not do this: contemplate Signor Pavarotti. Indeed, I should have thought it easier for Italy to find big men than it is for Ireland or for my own native land. Behind the pack they already have players such as Javier Pertile, Paolo Vaccari, Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon, who are the equal or even the superior of most backs in the Five Nations.

The second solution is to play the game more intelligently. For instance, there is no need to have a conventional line-out on your own throw. One of the erroneous predictions about the effect of the new laws has turned out to be that the throwing side would always win their own ball. Not so. It is more profitable to circumvent the line-out entirely.

Wigan, in the second half - particularly in the last quarter - of their match against Bath, showed what could be done. Bulk will, I am afraid, always beat brains. But teams such as Italy could still try to use their wits more creatively.

Comments