Comment - Rugby revolution means bigger is no longer better
When rugby turned professional 21 years ago the idea of Jason Leonard starting his working week by spending an hour doing hotpod yoga would have been laughable.
So too would a prop sacrificing bulk to maximise speed in order to play 80 minutes, or make a minimum of 14 tackles and carries a game. Rugby, though, has quietly entered a new phase where, for the first time in the professional era, bigger is not necessarily better.
“I would estimate that between 2000 and 2010 each player would, on average, put on two kilograms of muscle every single year,” says Matt Lovell, who was England’s nutritionist during that period. “We got the jump on a lot of teams back then, which was why the Kiwis called us ‘White Orcs’ when we won the 2003 World Cup."
But more than a decade after those White Orcs' moment of triumph there is evidence that players – particularly in the tight five - are actually getting smaller as the priority moves from set-piece prowess to all-round skills. Indeed, England’s lock pairing of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes against South Africa was the joint lightest the country has fielded in the first game of an Autumn or World Cup series since the professional era began – with their combined weight some 13kg less than the 241kg Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw recorded against Italy in 1996.
England's pack against Australia this weekend will likely tip the scales at just over 900kg - nine kilos heavier than their opponents - but both teams will field players who embrace that adaptability. Chief among them are Lawes, who has played in the back row, and Dean Mumm, who will make his eighth successive start at flanker having won 33 of his previous 34 Wallaby caps at lock.
For the strength and conditioning coaches who have to oversee that change it presents a very specific set of challenges.
“I’ve definitely noticed that in the last four or five years,” says Gareth Tong, Harlequins’ Head of Strength and Conditioning, when asked if he has noticed a switch in players prioritising mobility over brute strength. “It is happening with the props and locks especially now – no one now just wants weight for the sake of weight. You want them to be explosive but they have to get round the park. The set-piece is massive but you can’t do that job and not give an option in attack or be a liability in defence. Coaches want 15 guys who can move, not just 13 who get up after a scrum. It's about being an all-round athlete.
“At Harlequins, for example, we have two very different tighthead props. Adam Jones is old-school. He is 6ft tall and weighs 135kg. Kyle Sinckler is the same height and weighs between 117 and 119kg.”
And Sinckler epitomises the modern-day prop. During the 10 minutes he was on the field against Argentina while Dan Cole was in the sin-bin the 23-year-old made five tackles, a figure which would have seemed ludicrous even relatively recently. Aside from yoga, which he does twice weekly, he spends most of his time working on flexibility and mobility – the two things Eddie Jones has demanded his forwards prioritise. The Australian values power to weight ratio, not size, and will expect a similar impact from Sinckler against the Wallabies.
“Not a single part of my training is about getting bigger,” explains James Haskell, currently recovering from a foot injury he sustained during England’s 3-0 series victory in Australia this summer. “Everyone thinks you have to be huge to play rugby, but now you just don’t. My training is all about being mobile, and I think that is understood at the top level – but it takes time to filter down. If you’re massive you aren’t necessarily better at rugby and it’s better to have conditioning, power and mobility than size.
“Some of the most powerful players are the smallest. Mike Brown is very good in that respect, Dan Carter too. Josh Lewsey was very powerful, and Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph are now. It’s often about having a good centre of gravity and power.”
And rugby is altering how it views power and bulk for the first time since the turn of the millennium, with international backs on average 3.4 per cent lighter now than they were in 2003.
The catalyst in rugby's race to be the biggest was, of all things, the final of the 1998 Middlesex Sevens, where Wasps played rugby league side Wigan. Wasps began well but were blown away as Wigan’s superior conditioning told.
The response was swift as Warren Gatland began working with Craig White, who came from Wigan, and together with fellow union convert Shaun Edwards they masterminded Wasps’ period of dominance – one based on superior physical conditioning.
“Warren wanted a side that was bigger and more powerful than everyone else, and our pre-season was dictated by that,” recalls Haskell. “While guys my age were smoking in the bushes or chatting up girls I would buy three reduced-price rotisserie chickens from Tesco’s, eat them and then train at nine or 10 at night.”
Now, though, the pendulum has swung back. There are fewer scrums per game now - just 6.1 per international in 2016, rather than 7.8 in 2010 - with locks making on average 16.9 carries and tackles a game – up from 14.4 in 2010 – and a prop 14.2 per game, up from 11.2 six years previously.
Diet has reflected the need for forwards to have a greater influence around the pitch, and one of Lovell’s greatest sources of pride is the impact Billy Vunipola has been able to make from No8. If one player exemplifies the demand to get smaller rather than bigger, it is the man who has made perhaps the greatest strides under Jones, even if his knee injury means he will miss Saturday's final Test of the year.
“I first met Billy when he was 14 and he was significantly overweight - he actually weighed more then than he does now," says Lovell. “He had a massive fondness for white bread sandwiches and would have had hardly any muscle. His shape is massively different now, as is his weight [125kgs]. It’s education about food that’s important for him, as it is with a lot of these guys.”
Haskell is one who has taken that to the next level, releasing his own book – Introduction to Becoming and Remaining Rugby Fit – in a bid to help others know what to eat in order to make themselves more mobile. In Haskell’s case that means five meals a day, with a set formula to each of 40 per cent protein, 40 per cent carbs and 20 per cent fat.
“As more money goes into the game I think we will treat it more like the NFL,” he says. “They have so many more coaches, sports scientists and so on. As more money goes into the game we will realise that a single player could be worth something like £90million – that’s a very expensive commodity and you need to keep it running smoothly.
“Rugby has so much data on us physically but I don’t think it is used or understood yet. That will improve though. It will be fascinating to see where it goes next.”