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Does size really matter?

James O'Connor's increased his body size and is reaping the rewards in the northern hemisphere. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)
Expert
5th February, 2019
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5932 Reads

If you ask England World Cup winner Neil Back that question, he will tell you the answer in no uncertain terms. After all, the title of his autobiography was Size Doesn’t Matter.

But Neil remembers his stinging introduction to the realities of England squad life only too well.

“At that stage of my career I didn’t think my size would matter. I’d just scored three tries for the England under 21s in Romania with the national coach (Geoff Cooke) watching from the stands.

“Then some of the lads told me they had overheard a conversation in which Geoff Cooke had said I was ‘too small’ for Test rugby. I didn’t believe it, because I thought he would have said what was on his mind to my face.

“I was walking to the team hotel when I saw him coming the other way. As I fumbled around in my head for something to say, he cut me short. He looked past me as if I didn’t exist and walked on without a word.

“He didn’t say, ‘Back, you’re too small for international rugby’, he just ignored me.

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“At that moment, I learned how you could become the invisible man whatever you did on the field.

“I even wrote a letter to the next coach (Jack Rowell), asking what areas of my game he wanted me to improve, but never even received the courtesy of a reply.”

It needed two new sets of eyes for Neil Back’s value to be recognized. Those eyes belonged to Clive Woodward and Phil Larder.

When asked for his counsel by the new England head coach, Larder said, “He’s the best-conditioned athlete we have. He’s the best tackler and the only one who could play league immediately.”

Case closed, and the rest, as they say, is history – the history of 2003.

The Size Prejudice is still alive and well, however. Only recently one of the smallest, but most skilful, hookers in the English Premiership, Bristol’s Harry Thacker, explained how he receives regular messages from 14 and 15-year-olds on Instagram, asking how they can get bigger more quickly:

“I’ve sat down with a few boys going through the system… I don’t think guys at 14 should be smashing the gym.

“But there’s a lot of pressure for youngsters to be bigger, stronger, faster. There’s probably more focus on that than their core skills. Passing, tackling, stuff like that.”

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Body-building supplements, and the accompanying risk of positive drug tests, are very much on their menu for accelerated growth.

One of Wales’ greatest-ever wingers, Shane Williams, found himself in a similar position, counselling a young aspirant on Youtube:

If you compare the average size of the England side of the 1970s to that of the team which tipped up the Irish so impressively in Dublin over the weekend, you will find a team more than 20 kilos lighter and three inches shorter per man.

With everyone fully fit, the England matchday 23 is likely to include at least three backs as big as any English forward of the earlier era – 108 kilos of Ben Te’o added to 115 kilos of Manu Tuilagi, topped off by 120 kilos of Joe Cokanasiga!

Players like Shane Williams, Neil Back and more latterly, Cheslin Kolbe have succeeded by swimming against the tide of opinion which told them they were too small to make it. But Williams and Kolbe both added bulk and changed their body-shapes to keep pace with the evolution of the game.

The Shane Williams who electrified the 2003 World Cup with his dancing footwork was not the same Shane Williams who retired from international rugby in 2013. The 75-kilogram sprite had added around 15 kilos of solid muscle over the span of his Test career. Some of those ‘improvements’ cost him injury time-outs due to the new strain on his tendons and ligaments.

The reality is a baseline for size which even the most skilful of players have to meet, for every position. This is a topic of particular significance when it comes to the selection of the current Australian midfield.

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Kurtley Beale, David Pocock and Bernard Foley

Kurtley Beale (left) and Bernard Foley (right) are midfield staples for the Wallabies. (AAP Image/David Moir)

Michael Cheika likes to select twin playmakers at 10 and 12, and his favourite combination has been the Waratah pairing of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale. However, the two have been deemed too small to defend together against the monsters of the midfield Midway, with Foley staying in the tramlines at lineout and Beale often leaving early for the backfield. Both are kept out of the firing line as much as possible.

In the past, this has often meant the selection of a winger who can defend in the centre to compensate for their perceived deficiencies (Rob Horne or Reece Hodge) and the redeployment of Michael Hooper in the ten channel.

The ideal for the 12 position is Ma’a Nonu, a player who had the size and power to run and defend in heavy traffic, but who was also a threat with the pass and the kick. The Reds’ Samu Kerevi has the size and power, and flashed glimpses of an improving kicking game in 2018, but he is not there yet. Meanwhile, Reece Hodge hasn’t been encouraged to settle down at 12 and is still viewed as a utility back.

If the Australian selectors want the full package at 12, they might look no further than James O’Connor of the Sale Sharks.

Where Will Skelton was required to lose weight at Saracens, O’Connor has been asked to build up his body for the demanding physical trials of playing inside centre in the English Premiership.

That trial which was notably abandoned for Kurtley Beale at Wasps. After a couple of unpromising early games at 12, Beale ended up playing all of his rugby at fullback for the Midlands outfit.

O’Connor remains one of the enigmas of Australian rugby. A player who started out in the back three moved abruptly to number 10 for 2013 Wallaby series against the British and Irish Lions, then left to seek his fortune in France and England immediately afterwards.

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His international potential remains largely untapped, his 44 Wallaby caps could be 100 or more.

James O'Connor during a Wallabies training session

(AFP PHOTO / Patrick Hamilton)

He still harbours a burning ambition to play international rugby:

“When you are at this sort of level you want to be playing rugby, especially with a World Cup coming up,” he said to BBC Sport.

“I have been on a journey. A lot of my goals are personal, but once I get out on the field I know I will be a different player.

“That’s where all my energy has gone towards. It’s not gone towards having a good time and this or that, my focus is on playing rugby and I want to do that at the top level.”

In the UK, O’Connor has found a home in between South African Robert du Preez at 10 and big Sam James at 13 for the Sharks, and the trio utterly dominated the recent Gallagher Premiership match against Johann Ackermann’s Gloucester.

Is James O’Connor physical enough to play at number 12? The evidence of this game would suggest he is. Here is O’Connor, outwrestling the Cherry-and-Whites 6’4, 120-kilo number 8 Ben Morgan at a Sale cleanout:

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On defence, O’Connor had the confidence to take on another Gloucester big man, his opposite number Billy Twelvetrees at 6’4 and 105 kilos, up high in the tackle, stopping him on the gain-line and preventing the offload:

At the end of the play, it is O’Connor and his co-tackler, number 7 Tom Curry, who are still on their feet as the next phase begins, so the Australian had won his battle.

He has also learned a number of the nuances of play in heavy contact:

In this example, he chips Morgan at the initial tackle but stays alive on the play – long enough to stand in the key space to prevent an offload off the ground, and interfere with the cleanout and shield the steal on the floor by Curry:

james oconnor breakdown analysis

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He doesn’t run straight back into the defensive line (red arrow) but towards the tackle site (yellow arrow), and that gives Curry the bit of room he needs for a shot at the ball. Smart play.

O’Connor showed excellent judgement when committing to defensive situations. In the following example, he is the tackle-assist on the left side of the field but has not been absorbed by the play. That, in turn, enables him to run all the way over to the right to balance the defensive line and make a nuisance tackle on the very next phase:

james o'connor tackle analysis

In attack, James O’Connor was a strong enough threat on the carry to create space for a neat diagonal kick by du Preez, and he demonstrated that he’d lost none of his touch on a simple draw-and-pass in the build-up to Sale’s first try:

More importantly, the building of muscle mass in his upper body did not appear to have affected either his nimble footwork or his instinctive support play for the worse during Sale’s outstanding second score:

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O’Connor puts Chris Ashton through the hole for the initial break, supports him on the inside, beats the last defender with quick feet and finally unloads to Faf de Klerk for a superb try.

He almost repeated the trick with a miracle offload right at the death, only for the try to be called back for a forward pass on review!

Summary
If Australia want a number 12 who can offer a threat to run, kick, pass and stubbornly defend his own channel in time for the World Cup in Japan, they could do worse than take another look at James O’Connor, who has settled down in that position in Manchester with the Sharks.

O’Connor has clearly worked to bulk up in the upper body in the gym, to the point where he can fulfil the unglamorous spadework tasks of his new position. He can defend high in the tackle without being bullied by bigger units. As an ex-number 10 and back three player, it should be a relatively easy task to develop his kicking game.

It remains a sad truth that most of the top ‘small men’ in the professional game have had to work hard to make themselves bigger, and therefore more selectable – especially in the northern hemisphere.

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Sheer size and power are valued above skills in the development of young players in their teenage years, with a need for supplements implied to increase the pace of the process of physical development.

Somehow, I wonder whether Shane Williams or Neil Back would want to undertake their journeys against the odds as eagerly in 2019 as they did twenty years ago. Somehow, I doubt it.

The professional arm of the game in England, and especially France, is simply walking past the small man without a glance – as if he doesn’t exist, and without speaking a word.