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James Haskell: Being big and strong does not make you good

 Richie McCawIs rugby becoming too dangerous? Are players getting too big? Could rugby be heading the same way as the NFL, with all the inherent injury problems and short-playing life expectancy? There is such a focus in this country on size and strength, which is very different to places like New Zealand.

The first thought of any aspirant young rugby player in the UK is to get into the gym. The view being everything is based on the perception of size. Therefore players just want to get big and become ripped. Whereas in NZ, the first thought of youngsters is to go out and pick-up a rugby ball; start playing touch to hone and refine their skills.

It was one of the first things I noticed at the Highlanders. Naturally players worked hard in the gym, but it wasn’t the key focus for them. Of course this attitude doesn’t extend across all the Super 15 teams. The South Africans are positive giants, who live and breathe physicality. It was interesting playing against them as it was the closest experience to playing a tough Premiership or Heineken cup fixture.

When I started playing at Wasps, there was a massive focus on being the biggest, strongest and fittest. Me and Tom Rees were the first boys off the academy production line and were getting training as well as receiving nutritional advice while still at school. It was the first stage of creating the new breed of modern player.

Now this is the norm, with players being picked-up at the earliest possible age. My first three months at Wasps were spent in the gym; nowhere near a training fielding. My achievements were measured in how heavy I was getting, as distinctly opposed to how far I could pass a rugby ball. I am not saying this was a bad thing, just highlighting the moment when fitness and conditioning moved to the head of the queue, when perhaps it should share equal billing with fundamental core skill development.

Players are clearly bigger and more powerful these days, with youngsters getting their first taste of Premiership action at a younger age. As a result of this focus on conditioning and physicality, players need to be big and robust in order to cope at this level.

The biggest indication of how things have changed came to me when I was reading the Press guide for the England U20 team on tour in South Africa. To a man, the forward pack was as big as the full team!  Every player in their starting line-up was between 118-135kgs, which is huge. In my day with the U21s, our biggest player was Davy ‘Moose’ Wilson at 122kgs. Theirs was the man mountain Billy Vunipola at 135 kgs.

My eyes were opened to the importance of working on the core skills of rugby over sheer physical training, when now retired England hooker Phil Greening said to me, “What’s the point of being able to lift a cow, if you can’t out-run or out-pass one?” Crude but to the point.

That’s why after every session, I will always focus on core skills work: passing, tackling, footwork, highball and set piece. Just look at some of the best players in the world, they certainly aren’t the biggest. Dan Carter, Brian O’Driscoll, Richie McCaw to name but a few.

Craig White was the conditioning guru behind Wasps success in the Warren Gatland-Sean Edwards years. He started the strength and size revolution in the Premiership.

It’s no wonder that over half the Premiership teams as well as many national teams now have conditioners in place that either worked with Craig or under him.

I don’t think there is a major problem with guys getting too big, but I do feel it has to plateau.

There needs to be a subtle change into a smarter way of training where rugby is the main focus, backed up with individually tailored conditioning, focusing on speed and power.

The simple fact is that if you are big and powerful, it doesn’t make you into a good player. You need skill, mobility and speed. I believe sports science in the UK is a long way behind America and as we begin to catch-up there will be a shift towards producing players who have power, speed and mobility but without the obsessive focus of them having to be huge.

So to answer the questions I opened this article with. While I don’t think rugby is getting any more dangerous, I do strongly feel there is a real need to change the thinking and prevailing approach as to the balance between conditioning and skills for young players.

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