There is no getting under, over or around the fact. Whoever wins the battle of the big men – the really big men – on a rugby pitch tends to win the game.
The winner of that particular contest not only gives their team a physical edge, it offers an invaluable boost to group’s morale.
It was one of the main reasons for Ian McGeechan’s choice of Englishman Martin Johnson as captain on the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 1997. Johnson had first been spotted by the legendary Colin Meads as a New Zealand Colt on tour in Australia:
“If he stays, he’s a definite to become an All Black,” said Meads prophetically.
McGeechan knew the impact Johnson would have both on the field and off it when he said: “I just liked the thought of him walking down the corridor to toss up and the South Africans opening the changing room door to see who was there. They’d look up and see Johnno framed in the doorway and know that we meant business.”
Johnson was the biggest man on either side in the Test series, bigger than either of the Springbok second rowers Mark Andrews and Hannes Strydom. More importantly, he played with a heart and presence to match his size.
As the Mr Hyde to McGeechan’s Dr Jekyll on that 1997 tour, Jim Telfer commented:
“He’s indestructible. He’s a big man in so many ways. He reminds me of Colin Meads with the All Blacks.
“To get to them you had to get past Meads.
“That’s the way it is for us, too. Martin is at the heart of everything.”
McGeechan’s decision to appoint Martin Johnson was based on a deep understanding of the South African psyche, and how much Springbok rugby success depended on winning the individual clash of the giants.
Back in his playing days in 1974, South Africa had been unable to unearth a second row to match the Lions pair of Willie-John McBride and Gordon Brown, and that was one of the major reasons why the Lions went through the tour unbeaten.
On the other side of the coin, South Africa’s most protracted period of success in the professional era coincided with probably the greatest second-row combination it has ever produced, Blue Bulls Victor Matfield and the enforcer, Bakkies Botha.
The two locked the Springbok scrum on 63 occasions between 2002 and 2014, and triumph at the 2007 World Cup in France was at the epicentre of their joint career in that golden era.
They were the perfect partnership, and as much a contrasting mix of Jekyll and Hyde on the playing front as McGeechan and Telfer had been as coaches. Victor brought the beautiful lineout leaps, Bakkies did the dirty work – the really dirty work.
They not only guaranteed Springbok lineout ball, as well as a liberal portion of the opposition throw, they also provided the foundation for the area of attacking play which underpins the game in South Africa more than any other – the driving maul from lineout.
Most of South Africa’s hopes to win their third World Cup in Japan later this year will be based squarely on the size and quality of their big men – in particular Pieter-Steph Du Toit, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth and the new kid on the block, the Bulls’ RG Snyman. That group will be expected to provide the lineout guarantees and the mauling platform.
The Bulls fielded an enormous second row against the Brumbies in Canberra over the weekend, consisting of Snyman (at 6’10 and 125 kilos) and his slightly undernourished sidekick Jason Jenkins (a mere 6’7 and 122 kilos).
It promised to be an excellent test of the credentials of a player who seems to have flown under the Wallaby selectors radar in recent times, Rory Arnold.
At 6’10 and 120 kilos, Arnold lost nothing by comparison with the South African pair. But could he match them in the aerial contest at the lineout and restart, and in the grinding, grappling work which would inevitably follow it on the ground? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
Arnold asserted himself with his athleticism in the air right from the opening kick-off:
Arnold takes the ball under challenge almost horizontal to the ground. But his receipt gives the Brumbies an important, secure foothold in the battle of the big men to come.
The first serious test of the Brumbies’ resolve in lineout defence arrived in the 14th minute, with the South African visitors encamped near the Ponies’ goalline for the better part of three minutes. Flanker Tom Cusack had just received a yellow card for collapsing the Bulls’ third attempt at driving the ball over the line:
It was a good decision to jack up Arnold, with the Brumbies playing one card short of a full deck of eight in the forwards.
There are two subtly impressive aspects to Rory Arnold’s goalline lineout steal. Firstly, he and his two lifters (Sam Carter at the back and Pete Samu at the front) offer no ‘tell’, no tip-off that they intend to counter in the air:
Just before the throw is made, they are all aligned front on (with Arnold directly opposite Snyman), and the lifters are not ‘pre-locked’ on to the receiver. This gives Arnold the full benefit of surprise in his battle with Snyman.
Secondly, Arnold gets elevation into the air quicker than his opponent, and the high point of his leap is clearly above Snyman’s:
If anything, Arnold’s defence of the driving maul on the ground was even more significant than his defence off it:
After the ball is thrown to Jenkins at the front, it is the responsibility of his two lifters to block the space on either side of him in order to provide a solid platform for the maul to be able to advance and gather momentum:
In this instance, rear blocker Duane Vermeulen is slow to react and Arnold is able to penetrate the outside seam of the three-man front. Because he starts on the inside of the maul, Arnold is also free to legally ‘swim’ through the middle with his long arms before finally wrapping up the ball-carrier, Schalk Brits, and dislodging the ball.
Here is the unique value of a very tall man with very long levers, like Welshman Luke Charteris. If they can penetrate in the first instance, they can also reach through and lock up the ball-carrier.
Rory Arnold’s determination in maul defence was something to behold throughout the 55 minutes he was on the field:
On this occasion, the work of the front blocker, no.7 Hanro Liebenberg, is more effective than Vermeulen’s in the previous example – at least initially. He stays in front of Arnold and doesn’t allow the same degree of penetration, but Arnold (and the cohorts behind him) keep pounding the rock until it fragments:
Even though Arnold has been shut out of the seam at 50:15, he keeps working until it re-opens, and he propels his body through it five seconds later. It is an impressive feat of persistence, and by the end of the play, the Bulls are five metres behind the point at which they started.
On the other side of the ball, Arnold won six lineout throws unchallenged and was able to set the platform which Bulls struggled to achieve. It is no coincidence their hooker Folau Fainga’a is the top try-scorer in Super Rugby 2019, because the Brumbies’ driving maul set is so fundamentally sound:
They didn’t score from this attack, but the warning signs were already there for the Bulls lineout defence:
Compared to the lineouts on the Bulls throw, Snyman is much further from the ball, and hence less of a threat than Arnold.
The Brumbies reaped their rightful reward in the 38th minute with a try engineered off the lineout drive by their outstanding centre Tevita Kuridrani:
The TV commentator observes that “The maul wasn’t happening” on the replay, but in reality, it is doing its job very nicely indeed.
Once again, Snyman has been properly sealed away from the ball, and the lack of penetration by the big man means that extra Bulls forwards have to commit to stop the drive:
When the seventh Bulls forward (Duane Vermeulen) finally folds wearily on to the side of the maul at 37:23, look where the first defensive back (no.10 Manie Libbok) is standing:
With only one forward left out in the line, Libbok is looking in at Joe Powell only a short distance from the five-metre line. That means that the defensive spacings have to be wider outside him in order to cover the field, and Kuridrani gallops through one of those holes without a hand being laid on him. It is none other than Vermeulen – the man who had to join the maul – who is a couple of steps too slow to stop him.
The two second-rowers who are playing probably the best rugby either in or outside Australia at the present time are Rory Arnold and Will Skelton.
Is it a coincidence that they are also the biggest? Maybe not. The size stakes in world rugby have gone up. Arnold and the new model Skelton also happen to be the two best driving maul defenders in Australian rugby. That extra reach pays dividends.
At the 2015 World Cup, more than 50 per cent of tries were scored from lineouts, and half of those from lineouts which started from within the opposition 22m zone. Big people who can effectively set or defend the maul, either in the air or on the ground, will be at a premium – especially against South Africa.
The big man sets the tone in the crunch matches. Former England and Lions captain, and now World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont ruefully remembered his first experience of a massive French pack containing renowned maulers such as Michel Palmié, Jean-François Imbernon and Gérard Cholley:
“They let me catch the lineout ball, but by the time I’d come back down Cholley had turned me and Palmié had taken it off me. If they said it was Sunday, it was bloody Sunday.”
What the big man says tends to go. As it was then, so it is now.
Go in the draw to win $2K by joining The Roar‘s 2019 Cricket World Cup tipping comp by submitting your tips below!