In an age of greater safety concerns and compliance, you’d think rugby players might start becoming smaller. Laws will evolve to reduce the impact of collisions and the speed of the game will accelerate as size, while still important, becomes less paramount.
The gargantuan World Rugby Under 20 champions France blows this theory to smithereens. They were so big and so good they’d beat some NPC sides and would properly give a couple of Super Rugby stragglers a decent run. Tamati Williams recently became a new All Blacks prop. He’s 144kg.
A glorious afternoon at Coxs Bay Reserve, Auckland. The Under 85kg Premier final between Ponsonby and Pakuranga was a fierce, fast, skilful contest won bravely by Ponsonby 10-3.
Athletic, determined men of diverse ages and ethnicities, but relatively similar sized, exerting themselves and entertaining others meaningfully. The trophy at stake dates to 1898.
The ruck contest was particularly engrossing. It was actually a contest. The scrap for the ball, the one thing that distinguishes Union from League, was immense. Monotonous mauls were strangely absent too.
In the highest ranks of professionalism, there still exists exceptional breakdown foraging. More often, than not, however, we’re subject to a wall of muscle spreading itself out, standing to attention and waiting to belt the next mercenary that dears try to crack it. Dozens of phases going nowhere. Injures stockpiling.
Not in the 85s. Sometimes it appears there are 30 flankers on the field as possession is frantically pursued in every tackle, tackles that still hurt.
Why does this matter?
In New Zealand, player numbers are tumbling. According to the New Zealand Rugby Annual Report in 2022 overall playing numbers decreased from 158,409 in 2021 to 147, 847 last year. No doubt some of this decline can be attributed to the impact of Covid.
While the growth of women’s rugby is encouraging there was no specific commentary on male participation rates.
Further digging reveals some alarming trends. Numbers in secondary school participation have decreased by almost a quarter in a dozen years. The game is good at attracting young players, just not keeping them, and figures compiled in 2018 showed that while there were close to 10,000 registered 10-year-olds that year, there were only 3000 18-year-olds.
Any number of factors could be responsible for the decline, including cost of living pressures and other recreational choices. Surely another reason is the sheer size of rugby players and the fear of being ‘smashed’ all the time.
Rugby was always a game played by people of all shapes, sizes, and weights. A healthy 85kg battler trying to stop a 140kg behemoth is usually a hopeless cause for the former.
To crack the elite game today, or even survive amateur seniors, requires strict adherence to a refined science of physical preparation only enjoyed by those with singular dedication and access to diet, resources, and knowledge that allows them to become really big.
The average weight of a rugby international increased from 84.8kg in 1995 to 105.4kg in 2015, and it’s still growing.
Rugby has weight-restricted grades. Generally, they’re the domain of children and teenagers. Why? Combat sports like boxing have weight-restricted competition that attracts just as much interest as heavyweight tussles.
Sir Graham Henry recognised this. In 2021 he was instrumental in establishing a National Under 85kg competition which is growing. This year a national side will be selected. Suddenly a viable alternative is opening for those of smaller or average weight to compete, stay, and maybe one day get paid in the game they love.
Let’s get more ambitious. It’s time for an Under 85kg Bledisloe Cup. Call it the ‘George.’ That is the George Gregan/George Nepia trophy – two iconic players from each country under 85kg separated by nearly a century. That’s proof little guys can be enduringly successful.
Forwards might complain one is a halfback, the other a fullback. Sir John Graham could replace Nepia. The name of the trophy is not an essential point now.
Acknowledging that super-sized rugby is not for everyone is crucial. Weight-restricted contests with good athletes, marketing imagination, and competitive opportunities can boost numbers and thrive. Maybe for once, Australia could win too.