Brawn over Brain: How Rugby Players Have Changed

October 23 2014

Did you know that the average England rugby player in 2012 is on average almost 3 stone heavier and 3” taller than their predecessors of 50 years ago?

What’s more, the England team of today are well over a stone heavier and an inch taller than the XV which completed a second successive Grand Slam in 1992 and have 4.5lbs and almost an inch on the team of 2002 that went on to win the World Cup 18 months later.

Since the dawn of the professional era in 1995 following the South Africa World Cup, both the game and the shape of the players has changed tremendously.

Players no longer finish their working day and then don their rugby training kit and rugby equipment to go off training, often followed by several pints and a curry afterwards. Today their every fitness, medical, psychological and nutritional need is meticulously calculated and rigidly controlled. With the sheer size of the rugby union behemoths, if you are anything less than 100% dedicated, you will be hurt.

Statistics show that most injuries occur in the tackle.  Today players don’t dodge and swerve, they just run straight at their opponent. Shane Williams said: “Some of the collisions are like car crashes, when you get George North running flat out into a Manu Tuilagi, the forces involved are incredible. You get some horrific injuries from contact. You can hear half the impacts from the touchline."

We all wonder how the devil they walk away unscathed – and they do so because they are SO highly conditioned.

This level of fitness and the increase in player size, has led to changes in the way the game is played.  Welsh legend JPR Williams was asked to comment on how his side of the 1970s would fare against the current Welsh team. He said: “Well we’d get smashed wouldn’t we? We’re half the size – they’re huge and incredibly fit”.

This fitness and size increase means the game is played very differently.  In the 70’s there was no “crouch, touch, pause, engage” malarkey at the scrum, the two sets of forwards just dived into each other long before the scrum half chucked the ball in, and the ref allowed them to get on with it.  Lifting wasn’t allowed in the line outs, so it was rare to take the ball cleanly in two hands, it was more of a scramble and frankly a bit of a lottery who came away with it.  Today these set pieces are practiced and practiced to the point where it is almost robotic and the outcome is not left to chance.

The forwards of the modern era are expected to have pace, and a bit of nimble footwork as well as strength (who can ever forget Adam Jones try last year?), and the backs need strength as well as pace and agility.  There are those who fear we could end up more like the league game with little to distinguish between the backs and forwards.

I sadly don’t think we’ll see the likes of Shane Williams playing for a national side again purely because of his size, and what a tragedy it would have been if he was starting out now, how much poorer would the game be if we had not witnessed his genius.

The same could be said of Matt Dawson, Austin Healey, Tom and Ben Youngs – all great players who would today be sidelined purely because of their size. Modern rugby should strive to ensure skilful players such as these still have a place in our fantastic sport.