RATHBONE: Modern rugby has created a new type of player
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New Zealand's All Blacks wing Sonny Bill Williams vies with Argentina's (No. 8) Leonardo Senatore. AAP Image/AFP, William West
A consistent debate on The Roar is the idea that modern players are overly focused on physical preparation. It’s even suggested that a fixation on physical preparation has led to an overall decline in the general skill level.
My initial reaction has always been to label this notion complete and utter hogwash.
It is obvious that the game today is much faster, more physical, and requires more skill than was the case before professionalism.
To suggest that the average skills of top level rugby players was higher before professionalism is to offer an opinion that is not supported by any evidence.
But simply considering the average skill level does not paint the full picture.
I have an idea as to why modern players are perceived as less skilful than players from earlier generations.
Whilst it’s clear that the motor skill level of many modern players is exceptional, it’s also true that many players are able to reach the highest level of the game because they bring a different skill set to the table.
To be clear, when most pundits speak of skills, they refer to the motor skills: hand eye coordination and dexterity of movement.
As a youngster, I would burn through autobiographies of past and present rugby players and other sporting superstars.
In writing this article, I’m reminded of something I read about Danie Gerber.
Many Roar readers might not recognise the name, but Gerber is arguably the best centre that South Africa has ever produced.
He was dazzlingly quick, powerful and amazingly skilful.
It remains a travesty that South Africa’s isolation from world sport denied Gerber the chance to consistently showcase his skills at international level.
I remember reading in Gerber’s book that he was always naturally able to kick with both feet. This skill was not honed over hours of practise; he was simply born with it.
Of course, Gerber did train himself to further refine his skills, but he, like many skilful players past and present, started from a foundation of extreme natural talent.
Before the game went professional, players with the highest skill levels progressed most quickly through the ranks and ultimately ended up representing their state or country.
I look at many modern players and I wonder if they would have made it to the highest level in bygone eras.
In some instances, I think it’s fair to say that they may not have.
As an outside back in the 70s or 80s, if one did not posses the fine motor skills to impress, there was little avenue to exploit other natural talents. Being required to work full-time did not allow players to spend endless hours on physical preparation.
When I played for the Wallabies, it was obvious that there were many club level players who possessed much higher levels of skill than I did. My point of difference was never fine motor skills; no amount of “skills” training would ever alter that.
Sure, I could spend hours taking a weakness to the point that it was less so, but I would never send the ball 80m downfield in the manner of Mark Gerrard or Chris Latham, or throw pinpoint spiral passes in the mould of Steve Larkham.
But whilst I was a Wallaby, nobody in that team could outrun me over 40m. I realised early on that my talents tended more towards the raw physical rather than the fine motor.
Anyone who caught the Highlanders vs Hurricanes match on the weekend would have been introduced to the rare talent that is Julian Savea.
The former junior world player of the year, Savea stands 1.92m tall, weighs in at 108kg, and possesses the kind of explosive athleticism that has other wingers calling in sick for work on Saturdays.
In time we will learn just how far Savea’s rare blend of gifts will take him. I have the feeling it’s not passing, kicking or silky subtlety that will define his rugby career.
And so it is that modern rugby has given birth to a type of player not previously possible.
Advances in training, nutrition and coaching have meant that genetically gifted athletes can refine their physical talents like never before.
There will always be a role for exceptionally skilful players, and it’s likely that it’s these players that will continue to add the most value to a team.
As fans of the game, let’s appreciate the rapier vs. the broadsword battles that are possible in today’s game. As I’m sure you’ll agree, Savea vs. JOC would be worth the price of admission alone.
Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has returned to Super Rugby with the ACT Brumbies, following an injury-forced retirement from all forms in 2009. He writes guest columns for The Roar, and will blog his journey back to professional rugby in 2013.
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