Alan Watkins on Rugby: Why giants of yesteryear were anything but

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Watching England play New Zealand on Saturday, I thought that rugby was no longer a game for normal members of the human race. It used to be. Indeed, it was the only team game in which it was, in certain positions, possible for an individual to reach the highest levels even if he was neither a natural athlete nor a natural ball player. The two last categories, incidentally, are by no means identical: the late Colin Cowdrey, for instance, was more aldermanic than athletic, but he was a superb player of a ball all the same.

Rugby had another merit. Owing to its complexity and the number and variety of positions within a team, all sorts of shapes and sizes could be fitted in somewhere. Nor was this true only of schoolboys, of village sides or of the Extra Bs.

Someone as spherical as Gareth Chilcott could play for England and become something of a folk hero. I used to know a man who would take his young son to club matches. On seeing a woman in the crowd whose looks he disliked, the boy would say: "Look, dad, there's Chilcott's sister.''

Then there was Mervyn Davies of Wales, one of the heroes of the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1971. He was built like a wire coat-hanger on top of a beanpole. And yet he was regarded as one of the finest No 8s of all time.

But what strikes one about the great players of the past is how normal most of them were. The Wales front row that won the Grand Slam in 1950 consisted of Cliff Davies, Dai Davies and John Robins, who weighed respectively 13st 7lb, 12st 11lb and 14st; their respective heights were 5ft 9in, 5ft 11in and 5ft 9 1/ 2in.

According to John Griffiths's Phoenix Book of International Rugby Records, they "dominated the scrummages in each of the season's matches''. Behind them they had Roy John, the greatest line-out exponent of his day. At 6ft 4in he was a giant but, as he weighed only 13st 7lb, he would be considered too light for open-side flanker today. Only tennis players and, possibly, fast bowlers are now of those dimensions.

It would be tedious to spend the rest of this space detailing the heights and weights of the players engaged at Twickenham. It is enough to point out that England had a loose-head prop of 6ft 5in, Andrew Sheridan, confronting a tight-head of 6ft 4in in Carl Hayman, that their combined weights would have tipped the scales at over 36st, assuming the scales had not broken down first.

Average heights and wei-ghts, have, as we know, increased in the developed world over the past 50 years. But though I am unable to quote the statistics at you, the rise in the size of first-class rugby players has not been in proportion to the rise in the size of males of comparable age, occupation and social background. How could it have been, since there is now the distinct and separate occupation of "professional rugby player'', with all its attendant activities on the track and in the gym?

When I was at school, games masters and other teachers who interested themselves in rugby would stress the dangers of becoming "muscle-bound''. As the most cursory glance at us would have shown, this was the least of our potential problems. Yet at the time body-building was regarded as a strange hobby and possibly as a perversion; while the magazine Health and Efficiency, which showed decorous pictures of women without any clothes on, was passed furtively around and looked upon by those set in authority over us as an offshoot of the pornographic industry.

Today everyone is in favour of muscles, of health and of efficiency. Certainly rugby players are. They have no choice in the matter. Even Shane Williams, who, exciting performer though he is, is in a sense lucky to be playing international rugby at all, was told to "bulk up'' as the phrase goes. Martyn Williams received the same instructions from the Wales coach, Mike Ruddock.

In last season's Six Nations Championship it appeared, nevertheless, that Wales had partially overcome their size-disadvantage by moving the ball quickly out of the tackle and playing at speed. In this autumn's internationals they seem to have lost something, not entirely to be explained by the enforced absence of certain players. England have convincingly demonstrated that sheer size can work wonders - though only up to a point. It has not always been a pretty sight.