In the aftermath you may have missed it, but the remarks bear revisiting.
Paul O’Connell, speaking before Ireland played South Africa last weekend, had an observation or two about physical presence.
“There is no doubt about it, the physical part of the game is suited to the South Africans,” said O’Connell.
“There is no doubt having big athletic men helps you be successful in rugby . . . we have some great athletes but we could be bigger as well, we could be more physical.”
O’Connell chose his comparison well, says Dr Liam Hennessy of Setanta College, who spent ten years as the IRFU Director of Fitness.
The Tipperary native points out that you don’t need scientific evidence to recognise how imposing the South African physique can be.
“If you go and stand on a street corner for ten minutes somewhere like Stellenbosch, you soon realise how big the South Africans are physically,” says Hennessy.
“Don’t forget their ethnic origins, that they’re originally northern European stock.
“If you look at the stats, practically any time you line out against the South Africans they’re going to be bigger. But what does that mean?
“What’s interesting is that back in the mid-2000s we had the tallest international rugby team in Europe, but you have to be careful when you talk about size.
“You can be very tall but built like a basketball player, or you could be smaller in height but heavier.
“It’s a discussion that needs to be specific, because obviously in the front row it’s mass you want, as opposed to height. If you have that mass and you’re mobile then you’re likely to be far more powerful than somebody without that mass: that’s logical. I’d agree with Paul. In order to compete up front you need size and mass, but you also have to look at what you have. If a Jack McGrath pitches up and you see how dynamic he is, you can see that you can’t put any more loading on him and have him as mobile as he is.”
Hennessy points out that South African size can have a drawback, too. Take the injury rates for schoolboy players.
“I don’t have the measurements to hand to compare us with the South Africans but even when you visit the country, as I say, you notice the size of the people.
“However, in South Africa the injury rates are high because of the nature of the game, and the size of the players in school.
“They have more players to pick from and the selection process involves more players of greater size, and you see that when they rock up to the Aviva.
“On the other hand, I don’t believe our injury rates are as high, because the management of players is very good here, the development squads and academy environments are very good.
“The work being done in Irish rugby is excellent in terms of physical development, but you have to look at the genetic pool from which we draw and what that allows us to do.”
Genetics can be choppy water: last week this writer spoke to David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, who pointed to scientists’ nervousness when discussing ethnicity, genes and race.
“The scientists would be hesitant there because they need to go and measure,” said Hennessy.
“As a scientist you say ‘show me the evidence’. I mentioned Jack McGrath earlier, and the concern that if you loaded five kg more on him, how would it affect his mobility?
“When you get a hard day in the scrum as Ireland did against South Africa, you can opt for getting more size and bulking up players, but at what cost?
“I think you have to be practical because I think there’s a risk in bulking up players.
“When it comes to identifying big strong young lads, be realistic – how many boys of 18 or 19 stone do you find in our schools?
“Throw in the whole island and you’re nudging towards a population of five million to pick from, and most of the talent pool is playing Gaelic games in the first place.
“You’re relying on a small number of rugby-playing schools to grow the game, albeit with non-traditional schools and clubs coming into the picture in the last ten or so years.
“It’d be an interesting study for a scientist to look into the size and physique of those players cross-referenced with the demographics involved.”
What about tomorrow’s visitors? Georgia don’t have the playing numbers South Africa draw from, but they, and other nations in the neighbourhood like Turkey, have a strong national culture of wrestling and weight-lifting, for instance. Is that background an asset for them, even if it’s not backed up by hard data?
“It’s vague but there’s an awful lot of common sense in it and it’s borne out by what we try to do,” says Hennessy.
“If you asked me what age kids should start weight training, for instance, and I answered that it’d be great to start at the age of two or three, you’d be shocked.
“But they’re crawling and creeping and jumping at that age. At seven a kid will jump out of a bunk bed, land on his feet and sprint away, even though that’s a massive impact.
“There’s been a traditional fear here of getting kids stronger with resistance training. We don’t have a tradition of wrestling here either – we have a tradition of pugilism, we’ve good reaction and speed in boxing, but we don’t have a tradition of strength development in our schools and clubs.
“I’d agree with the theory. If you promoted gymnastics and wrestling, as happens in some other countries, that would compensate for the size of the population and the ethnic make-up, and help to make up deficits.
“I wouldn’t suggest we all suddenly start to roll around wrestling with each other, there’s a need for a coaching process there, but if you look at Georgia and certain African countries like Uganda, where wrestling is very strong, then you notice that in their play on the rugby field.”
Swings and roundabouts, though. Hennessy points to cultural sporting advantages enjoyed by the men in green.
“Look at how good Irish players are in handling a high ball. The Georgians mightn’t be as good at that because they don’t come from a background of varied ball sports, like a lot of the Irish guys. Get in close, though, and the Georgians can give you a tough time. We brought in ground wrestling around 2002 to get our players more dominant on the ground, but obviously if that was being done naturally in schools and so on, the way it is in other countries, it would be easier to include for older players down the line.”
Others in the shade as Toner wins king of the size stakes
By Andy McGeady
Irish rugby’s king of the size stakes is easy to spot. Devin Toner stands 208cm tall, that’s a hair short of six foot 10 inches in old money. At 124kg he was also the second heaviest man in last weekend’s victorious Irish team to scrum lynchpin Mike Ross (127kg).
The Irish lightweight on the scales last weekend was Jonathan Sexton’s 92kg, with the Irish backs ranging in height from Rob Kearney’s 1.85m to the 1.91m of Robbie Henshaw and Tommy Bowe.
The Irish pack to face South Africa averaged 1.92m per man and weighed 114kg. A well-conditioned, professional sportsman on a monitored diet can carry such weight but for a regular human it would be regarded as unhealthy. Those figures result in an average Body Mass Index of 30.9, meaning clinically “obese”. Even the Irish backs would be regarded as clinically “overweight”, with an average BMI of 26.8.
Ireland’s team named to face Georgia is a good deal smaller all around. They’ll average four kilos per man lighter both in the pack and in the backs. Shorter too, by three centimetres in the pack (with a great chunk of this due to the absence of Mr Toner) and six centimetres in the backline. Against South Africa the only back shorter than 1.88m in height was Rob Kearney; against Georgia, Simon Zebo will be the only one to reach it.
Ireland aren’t yet rolling out true giants in the backline. The massive Welsh backs George North and Jamie Roberts are both 193cm tall and weigh 109kg and 110kg apiece. Size-wise that’s two Jamie Heaslips in the same back division. Yet both Welshmen are relative minnows compared to the mountainous 125kg Fijian back Nemani Nadolo who they’ll face at the Millennium Stadium today.
- All Irish heights/weights from irishrugby.ie
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