“A good big ‘un will always beat a good small ‘un,” has become accepted parlance in rugby union.
The saying used to be “rugby’s a game for all shapes and sizes.” But that’s not been true for a while.
As the sport has rapidly evolved in 24 years as a professional entity “the good big ‘un” line has not so much become accepted, as been indoctrinated.
As coaches have defaulted to picking bigger and bigger players, building on the “gym monkey” culture former England lock Simon Shaw first spoke of a decade ago, power has become king. Size, in rugby, has become everything. It’s the only way, we’ve been told. Meekly, we’ve accepted it as fact.
Throw in a revolution in defensive structure, technique and line speed, driven largely by an influx across the globe of former rugby league coaches into the union code, and the perfect storm has brewed, transforming the sport from a contact game based upon evasion, into the collision game to which we’ve become accustomed.
Win the collisions, we’re told, and you win the game.
Anyone who questioned the sustainability of players growing exponentially bigger, and collisions becoming exponentially more fierce, have been gently ushered to one side of the room and told they’re romantic, living in the past. Or just plain wrong. We can’t go back to how it was, can we?
Well no, we can’t. Rugby players today are infinitely fitter, infinitely more skilful and infinitively more committed than they have ever been. The ball is in play for more time than ever before and the game is faster than ever before. The game, on the whole, is better than it has ever been. And that is absolutely a testimony to the professionalisation of rugby union.
But there’s a problem. As players have got bigger, stronger and faster, collisions have increased exponentially. The risks associated with playing professional rugby have increased, head injuries have mounted and serious injuries are an ever-present threat. If we accept the game can only be won by winning collisions, we must accept more and worse injuries are an inevitable consequence.
But that model is unsustainable. Now for many, not just a vocal few, the risks associated with playing professional rugby have become intolerable. Participation is dwindling as a result.
But, whisper it, there could be another way.
Such has been the impact on the World Cup of Japan’s fleet-footed, pristine passing game which has swept all before them on their joyous, riotous journey into the quarter final, it’s led us to question everything.
In the most spectacular fashion imaginable, Jamie Joseph’s men are making a mockery of perceived wisdom.
The home team conceded four kilograms per man in the backs against Scotland while their pack’s collective weight was well over 30kg less than Gregor Townsend’s side. That’s a deficit of more than 60kg of muscle conceded to a team who, in international terms, are only middle of the road in terms of size.
In Sunday’s quarter-final against South Africa, a nation which was light years ahead of others when it came to fixating on bulk and brawn, the size deficit will be even more stark. Attempt to go head to head with the Boks and Japan will lose.
But South Africa will surely be respectful. They know only too well, following the miracle in Brighton four years ago, this Japan team can beat them.
By moving the point of attack repeatedly, clinically and at speed with crisp handling honed by hours of training, Japan are instilling fear in opponents who were once able to bully them off the field. Japan’s fitness and commitment has long been known but the quality of their passing is what’s elevated them to another level and for that, their coach Joseph should receive the highest praise.
Telling a player to go and lift weights is easy, while building a defensive structure and instilling line speed is also relatively straightforward as long as you have players who are eye-wateringly committed and prepared to follow instruction. In professional rugby, that’s pretty much all of them.
But coaching players to explore space, improve their handling skills and have the confidence to execute them at pace is a far harder skill which should be lauded (remember Brian Ashton, anyone?).
If Japan beat South Africa for a second time in the space of two World Cups on Sunday it would be an even greater achievement than the miracle in Brighton. This time, the Springboks will see them coming.
But such is the skill, tempo and movement that Japan have brought to the four games they’ve played in the tournament so far, seeing them coming and being able to stop them can be entirely different things. We should all rejoice in that.
If professional rugby union is to have a sustainable future, it must return to being a contact sport based on skill and evasion where collisions are an accepted risk, but not the essence of the sport.
Every non-South African rugby supporter on the planet should be supporting Japan on Sunday.
They’re rewriting the rulebook and it’s joyous too behold. Whisper it, but this Japan team could be saving rugby union before our very eyes.
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