Tuesday 24 April 2018

Neil Francis: If you are not big enough, rugby is not for you

'If you are not big enough, or heavy enough, you are in fact precluded from playing at the serious end of rugby competition. If you are not big enough, this sport is not for you' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
'If you are not big enough, or heavy enough, you are in fact precluded from playing at the serious end of rugby competition. If you are not big enough, this sport is not for you' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A couple of years ago at a party in Lower Manhattan, I met an ordinary man whose stature and demeanour hid the fact that he was anything but.

Bentley Kassal has left an indelible imprint on pretty much everything he has attempted in his life. Currently he is a litigation counsellor for the prestigious Skadden Arps Law firm in mid-town Manhattan. He works a full day, every day. That in itself is not remarkable until you find out he will be 100 years of age next February.

Kassal sat as a Judge in the New York Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeal from 1970-1993, presiding over many famous cases including an America's Cup race appeal. Upon retirement Kassal went back to practice and clocks in tomorrow for another full day.

As a free European, I take for granted that I don't have to write this piece from a closed co-operative in the Deutsche Bundeslander of South Dublin. Anyone who unhesitatingly signed up to fight on the battlegrounds or beaches in Europe during the Second World War - well, we almost forget how privileged we are to be as free as we are. It is an honour to meet anyone who put their life at risk to fight for freedom for future generations.

Kassal saw action at Gela in Sicily, Naples and St Tropez. If you are going to land on the beaches, St Tropez is as good as they get. He was also involved in the Battle of the Bulge and ended his career at Augsburg when the Germans surrendered.

Kassal was also a Democrat and consorted with John F Kennedy, but stayed out of politics. Like Kennedy, he went to Harvard University and got his law degree at the famed college.

Harvard Rugby Club was established in 1872 and is the oldest rugby club in America. Harvard play in the Ivy League Championship every year. In 1940, Kassal won the Eastern League Championship on the undefeated Harvard side playing on the left wing. Hard to think that a man of his size could compete, even at varsity level. In 100 years of extraordinary memories this win seems to stand out for him. Maybe the carefree college days before the war colours your perception - nostalgia is difficult to fight with.

So why are we talking about this man? Well, during a group conversation Kassal was asked about his footballing exploits.

"Which team?" he was asked

"Middleweights," he replied.


"No! No! Rugby! We played in the under 150 pounds team."

At 5' 9" and a few pounds under ten stone, Kassal is a small man. He would have been murdered playing for the heavyweights but back in those days there was provision for young men who did not have the physique, weight and power for the top end. They were no less skilful, but they would have been broken up. They got to play at their level.

In an era when his life or his future dreams could have been ended by a German bullet, was it not pleasing that he could play competitive sport at a level commensurate with his physical size so that 76 years later he can look back with fondness on a sporting achievement that meant something to him?

Racing Metro 92 South African flanker Bernard Le Roux and Dan Carter eact at the end of their Champions Cup win over Toulon . Getty Images

I watched the Toulon versus Racing Metro game last Sunday with such prejudice that I was spitting Boudjellals out of the side of my mouth as Racing kept fluffing their lines. God was good and the comic seller and his rag tag of rugby rent boys were sent packing. Not long ago after a Heineken Cup match, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Carl Hayman walked by me into the reception in the stadium.

I was reminded of the song Running in the Family by Level 42, which has the great line, 'The officer in charge, a man so large, he barely fit his circumstances'. I don't think I have ever felt so diminished. They were truly enormous specimens. Last Sunday the size of both packs in Paris was a matter for Darwin.

The sole conclusion from watching these giants run into each other is that rugby is no longer a universal game. If you are not big enough, or heavy enough, you are in fact precluded from playing at the serious end of competition. If you are not big enough, this sport is not for you.

Already we see the game changing to accommodate the disparity between the big and the not so big. As usual the initiative is taken by those south of the equator.

In the school system in Auckland at starter level of under 8s any kid under 31 kilos is put in a restricted grade and they play against children of the same weight - irrespective of ability or potential. Any under 8 over 31 kilos but below 47 kilos plays at a capped grade. Any under 8 who weighs more than 47 kilos plays for the under 9s. Any kid who is significantly over that limit is assessed for the under 10s. This level goes all the way to a cap of 83 kilos for the under 13 age grade.

The problems which arise here, particularly in the antipodean multi-cultural society, is that a huge amount of the children playing rugby are of Polynesian or Islander extraction. Because they mature physically so quickly, it is common to see Islander under 13s weighing in over 100 kilos. It is a serious problem.

The Anglo-Saxon kids are not growing quickly enough and are dwarfed by the Islanders, who are now beginning to dominate the school rosters because they are so big and so powerful. They may not be more skilful or better footballers but that is not the point; size now dictates who does and does not get picked.

In Australia in rugby union, despite thoughts to the contrary, schools rugby is not graded by weight. In rugby league it is, but not union. The corollary of the situation is that rugby union has fallen off a cliff in terms of participation and appeal to the Anglo-Saxons in the population.

Soccer is the number one sport in schools in New South Wales now, followed by league and Aussie rules. Union, always fourth in the pecking order, is now no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. Kids were getting smashed up by the bigger, stronger, heavier Islanders who could be anything up to 30-40 kilos heavier than other kids of the same age.

At an amateur level in Sydney, if you are skilful enough there is apparently an under 80 kilo league - if you want to play you have to trim down to get in. I would probably need to be two weeks dead before I see 80 kilos again.

Homegrown talent: Garry Ringrose Photo: Sportsfile

I look at the size of some of our schoolboys and wonder about the complexion of any given squad. It is only in exceptional circumstances that the smaller players advance beyond school to representative grade. I watch our new superstar-in-waiting Garry Ringrose and hear that he must get used to the pace of the game and the nuances of professional rugby, etc, etc, before advancing.

My arse. They are trying to get him in to the gym to stack another stone or two on, get him bigger and heavier so in a year or two he can run through people as opposed to doing what he does now by beating them with pace. Robot school.

In terms of diminishing player appeal, size is now an issue the game can no longer ignore. You can join the herd or you can try something else. As the human race evolves it is comical to think now that back in the 1940s Bentley Kassal would be considered weight appropriate for the Auckland under 10s at 63 kilos.

There are kids watching what has gone on over the last few years hoping and praying that they get a chance to play for Ireland. For many it is a forlorn hope, not because they are not good enough but because they are not big enough. These kids are even precluded from provincial or club on the same basis.

Bentley Kassal and his middleweights had no such problems and they cherish their memories of being able to compete because they were good enough.

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