Big, bigger, beast: The ramifications of growing rugby players

By Daniel Gallan 27 October 2015

Rugby’s men are getting bigger, bulkier and more powerful. DANIEL GALLAN speaks to Paddy Anson, head of strength and conditioning at Gloucester Rugby, and explores the negative impact of expanding athletes. How has it affected the way the game is played and is there a warning from the National Football League that rugby should be taking seriously?

This article first appeared on CONQA Sport.

“In rugby, men are missiles,” so said sports journalist and sexologist Ernest Crawley in 1913. If only he could see them now. As the years have gone by, particularly after the injection of professionalism in the late ’90s, those missiles have become nuclear warheads. Monsters crash into monsters for 80 minutes and the pace and force of the game has become relentless. And we love it. But what are the ramifications of the ever increasing forces rugby players exert on each other? Should we, as sports fans, be concerned?

The 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa was a fairy tale, and for fans of teams other than New Zealand’s All Blacks, it had a villain. A giant brute of a man who brushed off would-be tacklers like a dragon would knights. At 1.96m and 117kg, this behemoth ran the length of the field like a train off its tracks. If anyone was unlucky enough to come between him and the try line, he simply ran them over. Englishman Mike Catt found that out the hard way in the semifinal between New Zealand and England at Newlands, Cape Town. Giants don’t bother with sidesteps.

His name is Jonah Lomu, and at one point in rugby’s history, there was not a man alive who didn’t fear this colossal Kiwi.

After the match that saw Catt become a sports quiz answer, English captain Will Carling said of Lomu: “He is a freak and the sooner he goes away the better.” It wasn’t just his size that made Lomu freakish, but his ability to combine it with pace, acceleration, and explosive power. This was no lumbering ox, but a rampaging rhino and the world had no answer.

At least it didn’t before professionalism took off around the turn of the millennium. Improved training regimes, controlled diets, strength and conditioning experts; the game could become more selective in the type of athlete it wanted. If the type of athlete wasn’t available, coaches and trainers could create one.

Players got bigger, faster, and stronger until every team had a freak. At this year’s World Cup, Fiji has a freak of their own on the wing. At 1.94m and 125kg, Nemani Nadolo is slightly bigger than Lomu was in his pomp. Yet the Lomuesque 30-metre runs peppered with tackle busting strides have been absent from this year’s showpiece. As Paddy Anson, the head of strength and conditioning at Gloucester Rugby, told CONQA Sport: “If everyone in the game is a freak, then no one is.”

Part of Anson’s job is to create bigger and stronger rugby players for his English Premiership side, and coaches, fans, and the media love him for it. Rugby people love big hits and big athletes. Television shows create segments around the biggest tackle of the week and stadiums fall silent then erupt in applause whenever a player is waylaid by a monstrous collision.

It’s one of the reasons why we love rugby,” says Anson. “We love the ferocity. We love to see these incredible athletes smash each other. What we often don’t realise is that these hits are causing damage. If we don’t address the way players are tackling and the way they’re getting bigger, we could face some serious problems.”

At the 1987 World Cup, the average weight of a forward was between 90kg and 100kg. Today, many backs tip the scales at over 100kg, with forwards expected to comfortably reach three figures. France’s Uini Atonio weighs 145kg. The increase in mass hasn’t slowed players down; in fact, their explosive ability has increased. That means the force involved in each collision has increased over time.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion states that force = mass x acceleration (F=ma) and research has shown that the average force in a tackle involving a combined mass of 206kg is 1197N. Put another way, Dr Simon Foster, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London, has equated the modern forces involved in a rugby collision to being hit by a fridge freezer dropped from a height of two metres.

With increased fitness levels, and the ability to replace half a team with fresh recruits, the number of tackles each player is making per game has increased over the years. At the 1995 World Cup, the average number of tackles per game was 111.7. That increased to 186.7 in 2003 and 197 in 2011. In the recent match between England and Wales, 210 tackles were made between the two sides, with Dan Lydiate personally making 15.

After Japan’s historic win over South Africa, coach Eddie Jones warned that rugby was moving in a “dangerous direction” and called on the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, to increase fatigue in the game to reduce the number of collisions. “Rugby is now a collision sport,” he said. “Something needs to be done to make it more fatiguing. Players are getting bigger and stronger and faster and the field is staying the same size; the problem is that the power is there the whole game.”

Teams have become a lot more even in terms of fitness and strength. As a result, tactics have changed and space is seen as a luxury that is not vital for success. With the laws favouring the side which manages to hold the ball up in the tackle after a maul has been formed, defenders are taking a leaf out of rugby league’s book: one tackler goes low to stop momentum and bring the ball carrier down, but barring that, a second tackler goes in high to prevent the offload and keep the ball off the ground. There are now three players involved in a tackle instead of two. This has resulted in more concussive and whiplash injuries, often inflicted on the second tackler.

The way Eddie Jones and the Japanese have tackled in this World Cup has been revolutionary and the rest of the rugby world has taken note,” adds Anson, referencing the chop tackle, where a defender targets just below the hips of the ball carrier while keeping 13 men behind the ball at all times. “When you have a 17 or 18 stone athlete colliding with another player at six or seven metres a second, there is bound to be some damage. If we made it a law that everyone has to chop tackle, which would really help smaller players, we would make the game safer for everyone.”

The National Football League (NFL) in the US has started hiring rugby union coaches to teach the chop tackle to defensive units. No longer are large athletes using their heads as battering rams. Anson is certain this will see an increase on the 3.3 years that is the average length of an NFL career.

It would be a terrible thing if rugby careers were so short,” says Anson. “I’ve coached players who retire in their late 30s and have become legends of the game. These are real people with families and livelihoods. Coaches and trainers need to treat them with respect.”

Lieutenant-General Bedford Forrest, of the Confederate Army, said war was about “getting there firstest with the mostest”, and like war, rugby needs the strongest on the front lines as soon as possible. This arms race has put pressure on strength and conditioning coaches to create the perfect athlete in as little time as possible. Anson himself admits that although that can heighten the risk of injury, “strength and conditioning coaches would be out of a job if they failed to create stronger athletes than a rival club or nation”.

Unfortunately this mentality creates casualties as rugby players are grown too quickly. Their tendons and ligaments can’t keep up with their increased musculature and, as we’re seeing more and more in the game, injuries occur.

We need to understand that each player has a limit and we should never push him beyond that,” says Anson. “Science helps us understand those limits and professionalism allows us to tailor a programme for each athlete. It might take a little longer for naturally smaller athletes, but pushing a human body beyond what it is capable of can cause damage.” Not only that, but bulking up a player too much can actually negate his agility, explosive power, and speed, resulting in a less accomplished athlete.

But the perception that bigger is better is still prevalent. As the game grows in popularity, so too do the big hits and big players. Owners, fans, and the media all desire a bigger athlete and recent results (the Springboks upset to Japan the exception) have shown that bigger teams generally come out on top. In a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, results showed that post-match fatigue is lower in larger players, despite having greater internal and external match loads. Over the course of a season, larger players are more equipped than their smaller contemporaries.

Anson believes that changing the rules might not only reduce injuries, but might open the field up and create a more exciting product.

Why not make it a rule that only one player can tackle the ball carrier?” asks Anson. “That way the sidestep would come into play more, there would be more offloads, and the skill set required to be a successful rugby player would increase.” Anson is certain that a more open game would change fans perception of the game. This would not only alleviate pressures on athletes to be as big as they can, but also on strength and conditioning coaches who often have to choose between pushing a player too far and risking injury, or playing it safe but fielding a weaker team.

This year’s World Cup has brought teams closer than ever. Australia’s 65 points against Uruguay are the most scored by any team in a match, a long way off the 145 New Zealand scored against Japan in 1995, or the 142 Australia managed against Namibia in 2003. Defences are more organised and are filled with athletes who are as strong and fit as any attack they face.

But it is important to consider the ramifications of growing rugby players. Sure, big hits and tighter matches are two variables that we’re after as rugby fans. But if the price we pay is a war of attrition between athletes who are only able to perform at the elite level for less than five years, perhaps something needs to change. DM

Daniel Gallan is passionate about sport and creating conversation around the games we love. He is the content director for CONQA Sport, an elite sports knowledge sharing organisation. CONQA Sport hosts an annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town where leading sports practitioners from around the world share insight and knowledge. Through original content, he and CONQA Sport seek to challenge conventional sports writing while pushing the boundaries of human performance through knowledge sharing events and consulting services.

Photo: New Zealand’s Julian Savea (2-L) is blocked by the South African defence during the Rugby Union World Cup 2015 semi-final match between South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham in London, Britain, 24 October 2015. EPA/ANDY RAIN


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