Saturday 17 March 2018

Neil Francis: Our game needs to rid itself of heavy gang - 150kg props are a parody of the way rugby is going

Weight restrictions would protect players and halt decline of skills

‘At over 150kgs (24 stone), Racing prop Ben Tameifuna and is a parody of the way rugby is going’. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
‘At over 150kgs (24 stone), Racing prop Ben Tameifuna and is a parody of the way rugby is going’. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Beeb, as only they can, produced a stimulating and thought-provoking 'Horizon' documentary on Formula One way back in 1981. They documented the trials and tribulations of the Williams Formula One team after a game-changing directive from the FIA and called it 'Gentlemen please lift your skirts'.

The documentary was fascinating on many levels. It was strange to see Frank Williams walking around as an able-bodied human being back then. The independents like Williams and Lotus had engaged in ground-breaking aerodynamic research and development and had put low-to-ground skirts under their cars which created a powerful low pressure zone under the chassis which effectively sucked the car to the road surface.

When you have this sort of down-force you have the feeling that you are almost welded to the road - why bother slowing down at corners! Cornering speeds became dangerously high - if some cars could corner 30mph faster than others then it was only a matter of time before the fatalities started to mount.

The FIA had no other alternative - the cars were simply travelling too fast and they instructed all teams to raise their skirts by about six inches - hence the title of the documentary.

Not everyone was happy and the independents claimed that the FIA favoured the bigger teams whose engineering and aerodynamics were not as sophisticated. Either way, the cars were too quick and dangerous for the track and the governing body had to take corrective action.


Time now for World Rugby to take the same type of corrective action. The sheer size of modern rugby players has been detrimental to the core values of the game for well over a decade. We reached a tipping point about three years ago and hoping or wishing that a solution would just present itself - well laissez-faire governance in professional sport lets the market leaders dictate which way the game is going and the market leaders, particularly at club level, plump for big or bigger every time.

What do I want to see? Weight restrictions. It is simple and I will elaborate on the scale shortly but it is important that the quest for size is stopped dead at the formative levels.

I have many friends whose sons are in elite-level squads in schools in Ireland. Many of these boys are given weight targets to achieve in fifth and sixth year over the summer. Depending on what position, 90-100kgs are the median weight targets. I have seen and heard stories about these boys who are given ridiculous diet sheets and start eating and over-eating from the moment that they get out of bed until the last minute before they get back into bed.

Ten eggs a day, six or seven chicken fillets, carbs this and protein that. They are eating like Monsieur Creosote in Monty Python's 'Meaning of Life.' They are eating, not because they are hungry, but because the game they play demands that they get bigger. It is unnatural and unhealthy.

Any mother reading this piece will tell you how much their adolescent sons eat per day - a mountain of food! The rugby boys are eating that by a multiple.

Rugby coaches tell us about the one and two per centers that turn a player into a very good player by cutting this out, or adding that or focusing on a certain element. I have always felt that diet is overdone and its importance over-emphasised. What good is that extra 5kgs or a bowl of slow-release pasta in the build-up if the player's skill-set is not good enough to catch a sloppy knee-high pass on the run?

The overwhelming emphasis is on bigger and stronger rather than faster and more skilful. What if they were forced to expend all that time and energy losing the weight and trimming down instead and becoming lean - spend time out of the gym and use it on perfecting skills?

It is hard to legislate on weight for schoolboys because they are just getting bigger naturally year on year, decade on decade. The point I am trying to reinforce is that if they come out of the school huge, go into and out of the Academy huge, it stands to reason they will all be supersize when they arrive at the pro game.

What am I advocating? I am saying that at professional club and international level tight forwards cannot exceed 120kgs (19 stone). Back-row forwards 110kgs (about 17.5 stone) and nobody in the back line over 100kgs (15.7 stone). Anyone over those levels can ply their trade at the world wrestling federation. I reckon it is as easy to lose 10kgs as it is to gain it.

We know the game as it is currently played is too dangerous. We have become desensitised to the perils of concussion and catastrophic career-ending injury. We look at the rubbish rugby being produced in the Top 14 and Pro12 - games of bash. Huge forwards running into each other and yet slavishly continuing down that line when evidence from the best team in the world tells us to go a different way. New Zealand are always light years ahead.

I have watched Beauden Barnett take over seamlessly from Dan Carter for the All Blacks. The boy looks like a whippet - he is so lithe and lean, angular and athletic and that is why he is so brilliant. The kid isn't carrying a pick and his speed is bewildering. Send him over here - we would pack 10kgs on him and suddenly the pace to unpick defences is gone.


Ma'a Nonu is picking up Mourad's dollars and is gone but the Kiwis replaced him with a 21-year-old who is 15kgs lighter. Anton Lienart Brown is four months younger than Garry Ringrose and comes in under 90kgs but he tore up the Australian defence the week before last. Fast feet, great speed and superior skill levels - but light.

Yes, the Kiwis have Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo but let's see what happens when the diminutive Nehe Milner-Skudder gets back from injury. He could be ready for the Chicago game in November.

Would Jamie Roberts be a more effective or less effective player if he was forced to lose 15kgs?

It was interesting to note that when Ben Tameifuna, the gargantuan Tongan-born New Zealand tighthead prop, tried out for the All Blacks, he got into the squad for the series with Ireland a few seasons ago.

At that stage he was well over 130kgs. The All Blacks binned him. Sorry son, you just don't suit our model. Tameifuna went off to Racing and is now over 150kgs (24 stone) and is a parody of the way rugby is going.

Compare and contrast him to someone like Dennis Buckley who gives up 40kgs to the man beast. In every respect Buckley is a superior rugby player but because of Tameifuna's sheer size he would be picked on any team ahead of Buckley - unless the rules are changed.

Weight restrictions may not suit teams like South Africa or the Islander nations and that is why they continue to produce robotic behemoths without recourse to where the game is going.

What I am calling for and will call for all season is the introduction of weight restrictions to safeguard the safety of our players and also halt the decline in skill levels which have become subservient to size.

Gentlemen, time now to lift up your skirts!

Irish Independent

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