The first time I faced Pacific Island opposition on the rugby pitch, I was aware of a certain size differential.
I’m not tiny. Recently, for the first time since I was in school, I managed to go below 100 kg. To do that, I had to eat air and tree bark while running 18 kilometres a day. For most of my adult life, the scale has read 110 kg or above.
But the first time I saw Samoans practising, I noticed their knees. Even devoid of surplus fat, their knees looked a good hand bigger around than mine. Which made me think about how much tackling them would hurt, purely due to physics.
Then I saw them wearing skirts. And I thought: “Those are not kilts. Those are actual skirts. And yet all I want to say is: ‘Hullo, I hope you are having a good day, my friends.'”
But I consoled myself with the illusion that they must be lumbering and slow.
Our coaches fed our delusion.
“You are the best rugby players of your age in South Africa. Which means you are the best in the world. And the toughest. You are superior. If we made more babies, we’d rule the world. Show them who is the boss.”
As we ran out to the cold field and found ourselves looking at giants. Every boy looked like he’d eaten a hog that morning with bare hands. And again, I looked at their knees.
I thought: “Our coaches lied.”
Look at the outside backs the New Zealand Super Rugby teams are running out there.
Julian Savea looks like a prop who drank jet fuel. His 108kg is smooth, painful, and an instrument of blunt force trauma. The Highlanders’ Patrick Osborne is a nightmarishly solid 105 kg. Blindside flanker posing as winger Seta Tamanivalu of the Crusaders can complete three dummy offloads and a real offload in one play.
James Lowe is fast and he is heavier than Jaco Kriel and all the other opensiders from South African teams. Rieko Ioane is a bullet train that ate a freight train.
Even the exceptions, Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie, compensate by slithering around into narrow nooks.
But make no mistake, Kiwi backs are too big, too fast, too ham-handed, too rough and tough, too everything in one package, to defend in full flight.
Resistance is futile if the defender is a normal backline player. With a full head of steam, it is just a concussion waiting to happen.
Just as in our match long ago, when I realised how ignorant apartheid’s view of relative size was, tackling these big units from the bottom of the Pacific is like catching howitzers while someone hits you with a cricket bat in the ribs.
So, at halftime, even though we were ahead on the scoreboard due to our scrum and our flyhalf’s clever kicks, we were tired and bashed and ready to surrender.
But our coaches told us the next lie: “Tackle them around the ankles. Nobody’s ankles are bigger than another man’s.”
Um, actually, that’s really not true. Some ankles look like the pedestals on statues that hold up a building.
Have you ever gone really low to tackle someone far larger than you? As you start to do it, you have these strange primaeval thoughts about being alone in the universe, without a benevolent creator and even, maybe, you have no friends in that moment.
And so you end up halfway up and backpedalling. Until a hand the size of a tennis racquet, one of the old ones, rams your nose into your perturbed brain.
How big are these wingers and fullbacks going to get?
Even the Kiwis without Pacific Island heritage seem to have evolved to compete. When Jordie Barrett pinched the ball from Nizaam Carr’s arms and scored last week, it seemed as if Barrett was the No.8 and Carr was the little wing.
Yet our coaches still lie to us.