Nick Cain: A sizeable problem is wrecking our game

Ben FodenBigger is better. That is the false mantra that coaches and talent scouts appear to be chanting with the brainless devotion common to one of the crankier religious sects, and the upshot is that the young players coming into the professional game, whether you are looking North or South, are becoming super-sized.
It is an extremely worrying trend because it stabs at the heart of Rugby Union, which has always been that it is a game for all shapes and sizes – that whatever your physique, there is a place for you. That inclusive message is enshrined in the IRB Charter, and yet wherever you look at the professional end of the sport the beefcake regiment is on the march.
The big beasts rule at international level and throughout the pro club/ provincial game in both hemispheres to the extent that anyone under 6ft is part of a dwindling minority – and most of that minority have done so much weights work that their biceps are bigger than their heads.
Nor is Sevens, traditionally an arena where the small, fast and skilful come into their own, immune from the super-size trend judging by the pumped physiques of the New Zealand and Fijian sides currently dominating the HSBC Sevens World Series.
The elephant in the IRB’s room is that there is a direct and obvious correlation between the increased size of players and the ill-conceived changes in laws ‘interpretation’ presided over by the world governing body over the last 25 years.
For instance, props are now nearer 20st (126kg) than 16st (102kg) because the scrum has become a collision sport all on its own. Winning the ‘hit’ engagement is paramount, and allowing crooked put-ins means that because hookers barely have to hook they too are getting bigger and mutating towards becoming third props. The totally unacceptable number of scrum collapses and penalties are a direct consequence of the big men generating impact forces that are often uncontrollable on engagement.
The consequence of allowing the scrum behemoths to collide before the scrum feed, rather than allowing pushing only once the ball has been put-in, is not only the tedious re-setting of scrums, but the increase in degenerative disc injuries among front row forwards. The announcement this week that the Northampton hooker Andy Long has had to retire due a neck injury is the latest in a long list this season.
CartoonAnother obvious area where beefcake rules is in the head-on tackles now commonplace with Rugby League-style flat line defences strung across the field. The flat line defences are promoted by static breakdowns where neither side commits more than three forwards to winning the ball, meaning that instead of five extra huge great forwards locking horns with each other at a ruck or maul, they are in the defensive line ready to use their four stone (26kg) weight advantage to bury, or tip-tackle, the first 14 stone (89kg) ‘weakling’ in the backline who comes their way.
The beefcake vicious circle is reflected also in backs getting bigger and more powerful in order to ride tackles and smash holes. Manu Tuilagi, who is 6ft 1in and weighs 17st 9lb (112kg), is a prime example of the new breed.
Tuilagi’s rapid rise with Leicester Tigers and England probably explains why this week the RFU joined the Tigers in running what is billed as a ‘Talented Athletes Camp’, scheduled for July at their Oval Park training ground. It goes on to guarantee a minimum of three places in the Leicester Tigers Elite Player Development Group for talented athletes – from diverse sporting backgrounds (e.g. athletics, basketball and football)  – showing the most potential at the camp, and who might be able to make their mark in rugby.
The RFU press release says that, “The camp is aimed at youngsters in school years eight and nine who are tall (over 6ft 1in), quick, who hate losing, and who play other sports”. The jarring note here is the requirement that, at the age 13 to 14, they have to be over 6ft 1in to be of any interest to the RFU/Tigers talent scouts.
Most friends and colleagues would not generally put me among the politically correct bretheren, but this sort of myopic selection process, with its half baked super-size policy stinks.
Why over 6ft 1in? Why preclude the next Shane Williams, Jason Robinson, Brian O’Driscoll or Christian Wade from coming along and dazzling with their speed and footwork, or for that matter hookers like Tom Youngs, opensides like David Pocock, Heinrich Brussouw, or for mercy’s sake, Tigers legend Neil Back (all 5ft 10in or under)? If it is tall back three players Leicester are after to take on the high ball duties they should take a look at Ben Foden identifying Billy Slater, the 5ft 10in Kangaroo and Melbourne Storm wing, as one of the best catchers in either code (see Pages 6-7).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to attract talented young athletes to Rugby Union, but what is the impediment to assessing the long, the short and the tall together? This RFU/Tigers missive is not only misguided, it cuts straight through the concept that Rugby Union, at all its levels, is a game for all shapes and sizes. It is the RFU’s duty to uphold the IRB Charter, because if Rugby Union becomes a game that can only be played by big beasts it will be diminished in every respect.

Leave a Comment