Six Nations now a place for the heavy gang

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline...

Six Nations now a place for the heavy gang

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline...

The team Ireland sent to Murrayfield 40 years ago revolved around the smallest half-backs in the game, a cross-border pair of Test Lions in the making.

Colin Patterson measured 5ft5in — “minus the high heels” — and weighed in at a fraction more than 11 stone. His out-half that blustery spring afternoon, Tony Ward of Munster rugby and Limerick United FC fame, stood three inches taller but had been chiselled into the same low-gravity physique.

For the same fixture at the same venue on Saturday and the challenging matter of getting back on the horse after the battering by England, Ireland will hope to rely on the most successful half-back partnership in the contemporary game. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton offer a striking contrast to their Lions predecessors of four decades ago.

At 6ft2in and not far off 15 stone, Murray is nine inches taller than Patterson and almost four stone heavier. At the same height and roughly the same weight, Sexton is six inches taller than Ward and three stone heavier.

The most vivid illustration of how the game has changed from being one for all sizes to one for giants is to be found in the shape of the two left wings at Murrayfield in 1979 and the pair of skyscrapers occupying the same positions there this weekend.

Forty years ago Ireland had Freddie McLennan on their left wing and the Scots had the late Bruce Hay, at 13-and-a-half stone one of the heaviest of his day. Neither was particularly short at 5ft10in but those wearing the same number on their backs on Saturday make them look like midgets.

Jacob Stockdale and his Scottish opposite number, Blair Kinghorn, are each 6ft5in, give a millimetre or two, and more than 15 stone at around 100kg. They, in turn, will have to step up a division into super-heavyweight when they run into George North, all 17 stone-plus of him, next month.

Only one member of the entire cast from the Five Nations 40 years ago weighed more than the monstrous Welshman from Anglesey. The late David Gray towered above the rest in the Scotland second row at 17st 10lbs (circa 112kg) but then he was 6ft8in.

Centres, as well as wings, are now built to similar bone-crushing specifications. Manu Tuilagi is north of North at 17st 6lbs (111kg) and now there are a quartet of forwards topping 20 stone with the France tighthead Uini Atonio outweighing them all more than 22 stone (140kg).

Ireland ran into half the quartet, the brothers Vunipola, last Saturday evening and they’ve been feeling it ever since. At a combined weight of 40 stone or 250kg, Mako and Billy continue to plough a horse and cart through the biblical parable that inspired the hit song ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’.

As one Vunipola would no doubt say about the other, and vice versa: “He sure is as heavy as a ton weight.” A survivor from pre-TMO days when the players dispensed their own brand of rough justice on the hoof, Patterson, at 63 a retired solicitor, fears that the ever-increasing amount of tonnage is destroying the game as he knew and loved it.

“If they’re not careful, someone is going to die or suffer a severe brain injury,” says the former Lions scrum half. “They’ve changed the game for the benefit of the uneducated spectator who wants instant excitement.

“They’ve taken rucking out of the game and in my time the ferocity on the ground was unbelievable. The laws then kept the forwards in check, mainly and the backs had room to play. You won’t see the likes of Barry John and Phil Bennett and Gerald Davies again.”

All things considered, the casualty list last weekend could have been a lot worse, despite CJ Stander’s fractured face, Maro Itoje’s smashed knee, some damaged ankles, a few bashed heads and countless aching bodies.

Smallest/lightest team of 1979 5 Nations:

15: Alastair Hignell (England) 5ft 9ins, 12st,

14: Elgan Rees (Wales) 5ft 8ins, 12st 7lbs,

13: Ian McGeechan (Scotland) 5ft 10ins, 11st 7lbs,

12: Jim Renwick (Scotland) 5ft 8ins, 12st 4lbs,

11: Guy Noves (France) 5ft 9ins, 11st 9lbs,

10: Tony Ward (Ireland) 5ft 8ins, 11st 8lbs,

9: Colin Patterson (Ireland) 5ft 5ins, 11st 2lbs;

1: Ian McLauchlan (Scotland) 5ft 9ins, 15st 6lbs,

2: Colin Deans (Scotland) 5ft 10ins, 12st 4lbs,

3: Graham Price (Wales) 5ft 11ins, 15st 2lbs,

4: Bill Beaumont (England) 6ft 3ins, 16st,

5: Moss Keane (Ireland) 6ft 4ins, 16st 4lbs,

6: Jean-Pierre Rives (France) 5ft 11ins, 12st 13lbs,

7: Mike Rafter (England) 5ft 10ins, 13st 10lbs,

8: Gordon Dickson (Scotland) 6ft 3ins, 14st 2lbs

Oh captain, my captain?

In a rugby world of uber professionalism, when a national team’s entourage of coaches, gurus and gofers almost outnumber the players, there are specialists for almost every topic under the sun, from psychologists to chaplains.

They had, or so it seemed, experts there to give the players the lowdown on whatever they needed to know, except for one question: Who’s our captain?

It beggars belief, therefore, that Sebastien Vahaamahina didn’t have a clue as to the leader’s identity until the referee, Wayne Barnes, told him.

The only international player with five A’s to his name knew nothing until Barnes penalised Wales during Friday’s strange affair and inquired as to what the Clermont lock wanted to do with the kick.

“Better ask the captain,” he replied by which time the man in question, Guilhem Guirado, has been subbed.

How, then, did Mr Barnes know that the armband had been passed on to Vahaamahina when the man himself clearly did not?

Maybe that caused the confusion behind throwing the match away with the kamikaze-like pass picked off by a conspicuously gleeful George North.

Azzurri must keep up the fight

It may have counted for diddly squat in the grand scheme of things but Italy’s late rally in Edinburgh will have pleased those of us with a lifelong love of the underdog, whatever the game or the shape of the ball.

The three tries they engineered in seven minutes towards the end of a cause that had long been lost gave the tournament’s perennial chopping-blocks something to show for another punishing experience. It also gave some meaning, however belated, to Conor O’Shea’s claim of the Azzurri “going in the right direction”.

Everything, of course, is relative.

Since their last championship win, at Murrayfield four years ago, Italy have lost 18 on the bounce and conceded an average of more than five tries a match.

Nobody has filled their boots quite like O’Shea’s compatriots, touching down 26 times over the last three encounters.

Perfection, come what May

Perfection on the big stage amid the cyclonic fury of a game like Ireland-England last weekend is almost beyond human reach. Nobody surely can have gone closer to achieving it than England’s left wing Jonny May.

He scored the first try, made the third and withstood the aerial barrage without ever flinching but then May has always let it be known that he’s ‘happy to be different.’ As a boy he says he used to play football with another kid who has also made a name for himself since May’s mother taught him to play the guitar: Ed Sheeran.

May also claims that he has had an official invitation to visit North Korea, another story for another time.

Josh tackles a record

According to the statisticians who know about these things, Josh van der Flier set a national record last weekend with a tackle count of 24, the highest by an Irishman in a Six Nations match.

Another 32 in Scotland on Saturday and the Leinster flier will shatter the all-time record, set by the Welsh lighthouse, Luke Charteris, against Ireland four years ago, equalled by France hooker Guilhem Guirado in Paris last year and by England’s mountainous loosehead Mako Vunipola last Saturday.

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