Is Raw Talent Being Overlooked in the Pursuit of Physicality?

shane williams george northThe modern era of rugby has seen the development of the size of players, with there now being a major emphasis on players size in order to cope with the physical demands of the game. But have the technical abilities of players been neglected whilst building them into the required size to play the game?

Over the past ten years, rugby has developed and evolved significantly: the game in now being played at a faster pace, and there is a considerably greater physical intensity to each match, even down at grassroots level. As a result, players have also had to adapt to the ever-changing game around them, although there has been a greater development of the physical aspects of players, over their technical and basic skills. If you look at any forward pack in any international or club side, you will predominantly see eight extremely strong men, most of them weighing over 15 stone. Gone has the day where coaches would pick players purely on the technical aspects that they bring to a side, whereas now there is a balance between the skills of a player and the size and physicality of a player.

Let’s take a look at the Lions pack which started the final test against Australia in Sydney: the combined weight of the pack reached 875kg, with the average weight of each player 110kg. When the Lions collide with an Australian pack with a similar weight, this generates extreme pressure upon impact, and puts great physical strain on the players. This is why they have had to increase their physical size: to adapt to the physical pressures that rugby puts on the bodies of the players.

However, rugby is not totally dominated by gigantic players. Let’s look at two examples: the first is Will Genia of the Queensland Reds and Australia. Regarded by many as the greatest scrum-half to ever play the game, he is one of the best players in the world, if not the best. Standing at 5ft 8”, he has without doubt the greatest tactical mind in the modern game, and he frequently dominates games, by being able to dictate the pace at which the game is played at. This was portrayed when he proved instrumental in setting up Israel Folau’s first try in Brisbane, when he swerved in and out defenders considerably bigger than him, showing that size doesn’t matter when it comes to raw talent.

The second player who epitomises this is Christian Wade of London Wasps. Like Genia, he also stands at 5ft 8”, but has the ability to terrorise defences with two aspects: his scorching pace but more prominently, his incredible side-step which splits defences in half. This was seen this season, when he scored 18 tries in 26 appearances for Wasps in all competitions, which was well rewarded with a call up to tour Argentina with England, and the British Lions tour to Australia. His ability to tear apart defences was seen in the Amlin Challenge Cup Quarter-Final against Leinster, when he took the play in a static position, slid past three Leinster tacklers then rounded Rob Kearney with electric speed to finish off a superb individual try. This individual again highlights how size can be ripped apart by raw speed and talent.

On the other hand, size does play a critical factor in the modern game of rugby, and many players are branded with the tag of ‘enforcer’ – a player who is designed to bring extreme physicality into the game, primarily in the loose and at the set piece. The enforcer is usually found in the second row and is paired with an athletic partner, usually an expert at the set piece. Examples of players who have the ‘enforcer’ tag on them are Alun-Wyn Jones, Courtney Lawes, Kane Douglas and Sam Whitelock: all these players are prime physical specimens, and bring physicality to every game they play in. This sort of size is not just limited to the forwards though, as back lines have also grown in stature as well. This is particularly evident on the wing, where wingers have evolved from small guys with electric feet side stepping around hopeless defenders, into giant marauders who are brought off their wings and into the game on the inside shoulders of their fly halfs, and are capable of battering their way through defences to reach the holy grail of the try line.

Characters such as George North, Alex Cuthbert, Julian Savea and Israel Folau typify the type of player the modern game demands: a player with an all round skill set, along with raw pace and bruising power. However, they seem to have become frequent across every side, as once a new child superstar is unearthed, another is soon discovered, except this one is faster, stronger and bigger than its predecessor.

Let’s look at the North/Cuthbert example: George North announced his arrival into International rugby in his debut against South Africa in 2010,where he crashed over for two tries against the reigning world champions and soon became an ever-present for a talented Wales side, winning the 6 Nations three times in the last four years. And then came Alex Cuthbert, who arrived even taller than North! He too has made his mark on International rugby, capping off a great year for him with two tries in the Grand Slam decider against England, and then scored a decisive try for the British Lions in the first test, after taking a gorgeous line and then waltzing through four Australian defenders. So, when will Wales reveal their next gigantic winger?

If current trends continue, then the modern game could potentially become overpopulated with monstrous players who disregard basic skill and raw talent in the place of sheer power and physicality. But let us not forget those players who don’t have the size of others, but rely on tactics and sheer moments of brilliance to tear a game apart, as those are the players who make the game what it is, alongside the power players. I feel that although size and physicality is important, there will always be a place in the game for the next Jason Robinson.

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