Some players are lighting fast, some are as strong as an ox and some lucky ones are both.
Others have no god-given talents but can still lift trophies and pick up awards (Dan Carter and Richie McCaw come to mind).
As humans we admire fine athletic specimens. There is something hypnotic about a player with blistering pace or a giant hulk of a man running over blokes like a steam train.
This is not to say you can’t be both. David Pocock and Ardie Savea both have super human strength but with a good eye for the game too. But if you had to choose, who is more important to winning? The perfect physical specimen or the fella with a bit of a spare tire but who manages to somehow come up with the right plays?
Heard an interview last year with Lachie McCaffrey of the Brumbies where he pointed out there is too much of a emphasis in Oz rugby on weight lifting stats, sprint times or body fat percentage than actually footy skills.
Personally, I would choose a team of footy players over a team of athletes every day.
Here is some evidence for my theory of footy players over athletes. Look at the line up for the Crusaders when they won their third Super Rugby final in a row last year.
1. Joe Moody
2. Codie Taylor
3. Owen Franks
4. Mitchell Dunshea
5. Samuel Whitelock
6. Whetukamokamo Douglas
7. Matt Todd
8. Kieran Read
9. Bryn Hall
10. Richie Mo’unga
11. George Bridge
12. Jack Goodhue
13. Braydon Ennor
14. Sevu Reece
15. David Havili
I don’t see any player who is remarkably physically gifted for their position (even Reece and Bridge for example are quick but nothing special for a winger). Yet the Crusaders have won three in a row. That’s a team of footy players who make the right decisions and do the little things right. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
On the flip side is the Fijian national team for last year’s World Cup. Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, Peceli Yato, Leone Nakarawa and Viliame Mata. Big, fast, strong, and exciting. In fact, I read a story of how they have to limit Tuisova’s gym sessions so he didn’t put on too much muscle!
We all wish we had that problem.
There was big hope for this team but the result was one solitary win against Georgia and three losses (including to a team of Uruguayan amateurs who they outweighed by almost 10kg per man). In stark contrast to the Crusaders, the whole was less than the parts. A team of stars instead of a star team.
If the Crusaders came up against the Fijian team, I know who would be winning that game nine times out of ten. The Crusaders have been so dominant in Super Rugby that they have remarkably won 10 out of 24 tournaments and been in the final another four times.
Amazing. The Crusaders are almost as dominant in Super Rugby (even over their Kiwi rivals) as the All Blacks are internationally.
There is nothing magical in the Canterbury water that has made the Crusaders a team of 10 foot tall monsters with the speed of Usain Bolt and the strength of a mountain. They don’t have a threee-code athletic superstar like Izzy Folau leaping high at fullback, or a 130kg freakishly lightfooted prop like Taniela Toupou, or a player who can boot the ball into the atmosphere like Reece Hodge.
They are just a team of footy players who focus on the important skills of rugby. They are one of the most popular provincial teams in the world. Their stadium is always packed and you see random Crusaders jerseys wherever you go.
Don’t get me wrong. You need to be a strong and fast as you can. But not at the expense of skills. Rugby Australia has been far too focused on athletes of recent and have been making horrible investments in players where the risk/reward just doesn’t pay off.
The $900,000 a year the Reds have spent on pulling another athletic winger from league with the hope they can develop rugby skills is a great example. Signing up promising young athletic players on massive four-year deals who are only one twist or tear away from losing their edge is another risky investment.
Rugby is not a pure athletic discipline like the 100m sprint or weightlighting. It is a highly tactical, skills-based team sport.
At the elite level, once you meet the standard physical requirements for your position (i.e. fast enough to be a winger, tall enough to be a lock) skills, decision making, and combinations with teammates are gonna take you to the top.
So please Rugby Australia and Ozzie Super Rugby teams/coaches, bring back the footy player!