The extraordinary transformation from the stamina-based rugby of the game's amateur era to the physically combative version served up by today's professionals was perhaps best illustrated when the two goliaths both metaphorically and tangibly met in the last game of the rugby championship on the 2nd of October.
Teams packed with man-mountains faced off in an epic encounter to finish off the southern hemisphere 2014 season, but the south African victory by 27-25 perhaps indicated that brawn may now take precedence over brain in the current game. The players are simply getting bigger and so too are the collisions, meaning the intuitive aspect of rugby is gradually being phased out. In fact one orthopaedic surgeon recently opined that rugby was becoming a sport for “freaks”. He’s right. Rugby is now a game of power. The reasons are many and varied: professionalism has heralded a revolution in conditioning, but the stop/start nature of the game also plays a part. A game in which aerobic fitness is a key component of every player limits the size of those participating because, to put it bluntly, fat blokes can’t run for 80 minutes. But, now, no one has to, thanks to the long breaks between lineouts, penalties and reset scrums and because of this a human arms race has been the result.
A prime example is the current Wasps skipper James Haskell, who after walking fresh faced out of Wellington College and onto the Wasps academy production line was placed on an immediate dietary and gym-training programme. He now weighs nearly 42kg more than he did as an 18 year old schoolboy. He stated, “the first three months at Wasps were spent in the gym; nowhere near a training field. 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. It is perhaps relieving to hear Haskell say “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.”
What is most worrying though is the scale and severity of injuries that modern players are suffering. Players no longer are out for a couple of weeks as in football, but a standard injury now means about 2 months on the sidelines. Club coaches expect to be without 25-33 per cent of their players at any one time due to injury. It also represents an incredibly fragile career shown through Shontayne Hape who went from England starter to retired 28 yr. old within a year. A number of concussion related injuries meant Hape could no longer even make it through a regular touch game without suffering memory loss.
It is time then in the wake of next years world cup for the rugby world to take a look at itself and ensure that size does not take away from a much loved and enthralling sport, before the doctors intervene.