Rugby League: Hughes fit to meet his mentor

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The Independent Online
RUGBY used to be a game for all sizes. But rugby is not what it used to be. The average international player today - going by the most recent teams to turn out for each of the five nations - is 20lb heavier than the average international player 25 years ago. The average international forward is 19lb heavier and 1in taller.

In the past six months, France have fielded their biggest ever pack, against Australia, and Scotland have fielded their biggest ever pack, against the All Blacks. Australia have fielded a succession of biggest-ever packs over the past few years, while nearly every international side has been adding height and weight to its scrum, particularly in the back row. France, for example, have moved Benazzi from the second row to the back row, New Zealand have moved Larson from the second row to the back row, Scotland have moved Wainwright from No 8 to the flank, Wales have moved Emyr Lewis from No 8 to the flank, and England, in November, used three No 8s against New Zealand to form their biggest ever back row. The average Five Nations back- row forward has grown 21 2 in and 23lb in the past 25 years.

What we are witnessing, in other words, is not just a reflection of a general increase in stature in the population as a whole (although there has been one). Rather, it is the result of a deliberate strategy by national selectors - a strategy that has been largely caused by the new 'experimental' laws.

In fact, the move towards picking giant back-row men to use as battering-rams began well before March 1992. The 1989 Lions used Richards and Teague in this way against Australia, to such good effect that Australia responded by selecting their own giants, Ofahengaue and Gavin. But it was only with the new ruck and maul laws that the big back-row men really came into their own. On the one hand, they could use brute strength to edge downfield slowly in rolling mauls, confident in the knowledge that their opponents could no longer stop them by bringing the maul down. On the other, they could charge straight at defences at full speed, knowing that, as long as they were well-

supported and fell correctly when stopped, it would be almost impossible for the opposition to get at the ball in the ruck.

The result has been a radical and lamentable transformation in the character of the game. Once a game requiring a wide range of skills, it is becoming a one-dimensional power game: more like rugby league than the rugby union of the past and, increasingly, more like American football than either. At every ruck and maul, we see big forwards standing off waiting to charge, and big men opposite them lined up waiting to tackle them.

For those who like that sort of thing, there is a certain excitement in watching such charges; but there should be more to rugby than that. Now that the trend is established, however (and it seems that there is no prospect of the International Board's repealing any of the new laws until after the 1995 World Cup), it can only increase. Each side sees its opponents' pack full of charging giants and, as England did against New Zealand, responds in kind.

The negative effects on the game have been many and various. One is that many nations are finding it harder and harder to compete. England, France, Australia and South Africa can pick players from populations which are large in both senses of the word (and New Zealand from a population which at least tends to be physically large). Celtic teams have a smaller population pool to choose from and, in any case, tend to produce men of slightly smaller build. Similar disadvantages apply to Japan, Spain and Argentina. How much longer will it be before world rugby splits into two divisions, the heavyweight nations and the lightweight nations?

Equally unfortunate is the way in which certain kinds of player have been marginalised. Some of the most exciting forwards the game has ever produced - Budge Rogers, John Taylor, Dai Morris, Jean-Pierre Rives - would struggle to win a place in their national sides today, and thousands of aspiring players, from Neil Back downwards, are having to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how far they develop their talents, they may never play at the highest level simply because they lack outsize physiques.

Another consequence of the new power game has been a series of appalling injuries. One of the aims of the new laws was to make the game safer, yet in recent matches shocking injuries (to Jean-Francois Tordo's head in South Africa, to Tim Gavin's head in France, to Rupert Moon's head against Canada, to Philip de Glanville's head against the All Blacks) seem to have been the rule rather than the exception. The reasons are twofold. First, very simply, now that players must stay on their feet in rucks and not use their hands, their only way of getting the ball is with their feet, and so there is more footwork. Second, the game's new character has changed players' mentality. It is difficult for men who are psyched up for all- out charging, for high-impact collisions, to exercise much restraint when they pile into rucks. There have always been injuries caused by deliberate foul play; today we are also seeing injuries caused by what might more fairly be described as over-enthusiasm.

Then there is the question of entertainment. Twenty-five years ago, the Five Nations' Championship produced 32 tries, and 29 converted penalties. Last year's Championship produced just 20 tries, and 40 converted penalties. This is partly the result of another piece of poor legislation: now that a converted try is worth more than twice as many points as a penalty, it is well worth a defending side's while to concede a penalty to avert a try. But it also reflects the increasing predictability of the power game. When players are selected because of their ability to act as battering-rams, those are the tactics their side will tend to employ; and, because of this predictability, it is not difficult for defences to deploy themselves in such a way as to prevent such tactics from yielding tries. Add to this the tendency of teams with giant packs to try to exploit any size advantage by constant touch-kicking, and you are left with a game without much magic in it.

None of these unfortunate developments is irreversible, but there is little immediate prospect of any of them being reversed. The International Board seems to have made up its mind about the new laws and does not wish to be confused by facts. And, in the meantime, international rugby players seem to be evolving, like basketball players, into a species of outsize freaks. Twenty-five years from today, I fear, rugby as I used to play it may be only a memory.

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