You know the voices. Every sport has them. The ones that lament the state of “the modern game”, who hanker for the way things were.
Creatures of tradition that long for a return to the good old days, when the game was pure, full of integrity and so on. Joe Brolly recently said science is destroying Gaelic football and has suggested children play tennis instead. George Hook is baffled by the fact that rugby players carry the ball into one another instead of around, like they used to. John Giles just can’t stand Cristiano Ronaldo.
They are like Donald Trump supporters in some ways. No, I’m not calling them a basket of deplorables. They want to make their sport great again but might not be as well informed as they think.
People are flabbergasted at the size of rugby professionals today. Player weights are incomparable to what they were even 10 years ago. Purists argue that the game is full of muscular robots who are programmed to be dull and unadventurous. This, they argue, means rugby isn’t the spectacle it once was. Watching enormous men run straight into one another for 80 minutes isn’t the most riveting way to spend an evening. They claim there is no place for smaller, more talented individuals any more.
Such mournful talk makes me think of a scene from The Simpsons, back when it used to be funny.
Homer’s extended family is in town and they spend most of their stay playing an unusual game.
Two of the men put pots on their head, bend over and run directly into one another from quite a distance away. How the winner was determined I’m not sure. The naysayers would have you believe this is what is being served up in the northern hemisphere every weekend.
The notion that skill levels have suffered as players have gotten bigger is simply untrue. What we have seen in recent years is the emergence of freakishly big and powerful men with a skillset that anyone on the pitch would envy. Anyone that saw Montpellier winger Nemani Nadolo terrorise the Leinster defence two weekends ago knows what I’m talking about.
The Fijian monster stands at 6 ft 5 and weighs 140kg. To put it in some context, that’s about 10 kilos heavier than Mike Ross. Far from being a one-trick pony, Nadolo’s handling and footwork are as good as any winger around and he has a habit of slotting conversions over from the touchline while playing for his national side.
Another that dismisses the stereotype is Racing’s Ben Tameifuna. The Kiwi tighthead is 150kg, has a lethal turn of pace and is as capable of a one-handed offload as anyone. In addition to this, he is a plague at the breakdown with the ability to steal the ball as quickly as any back row I’ve seen.
But surely when men of this size are around, the pitch becomes an excessively dangerous place for a normal person? Have a huge number of exciting, twinkle-toed young men not been deprived of careers in professional rugby as a result? The facts disprove that theory. Rugby is more diverse now than ever before. Some of the most exciting and effective players in world rugby are punching well above their weight. Literally.
Take winger Gio Aplon. At 78kg, the average punter would probably laugh if you pointed at him across the bar and said he was a South African international. His countrymen aren’t exactly known for being small in stature. Aplon reportedly has a €1m contract at Bernard Jackman’s FC Grenoble and recently scored what will probably be the try of the season.
Weaving his way in from 60 metres out against La Rochelle, he left the bigger men in the dust.
Aplon will shortly line out alongside Kalolo Tuimona, another Polynesian wrecking ball that is making his way to France.
Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’, he caught Jackman’s eye after impressive displays in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup. Understandably so — the last time I saw a tighthead score a hat-trick in 16 minutes was playing an U14 game against Crescent Comprehensive.
At 140kg he is, laughably, nearly twice the weight of his team-mate on the wing. It will be quite the sight if they ever stand shoulder to shoulder for a minute’s silence but one that would highlight the range of personnel that rugby requires.
Australia’s David Pocock and Michael Hooper are two the world’s best back rows. Each weighing just over 100 kilos, they are proof that size alone is no match for technical ability and an instinctive understanding of the game.
The pair consistently out-class bigger, stronger opponents who, on paper, they should be no match for. In the same mould is Munster’s Conor Oliver. The 21-year-old is not the biggest but hits ferociously hard and is certain to be a fixture in the province for many years to come.
We should be celebrating the fact that the sport provides a space that allows people of all shapes and sizes to thrive. From under-eights to Test rugby, there is no other team sport on the planet that can cater for everyone that wants to take part. If a child is a bit heavy or even overweight, they can play in the front row. If a child is small and skinny, they can play on the wing. If a child has an enormous ego, they can slot in at out-half!
This has always been a unique feature of rugby and not one we are in danger of losing.
We should be licking our lips at the evolution of the game and the size and ability of the people that play it.
Standards in rugby are at their pinnacle and will only continue to improve. There is no need to look back and long for what used to be.
The good old days were good. The days to come will be great.