Wednesday 21 August 2019

Neil Francis: Why were Ireland doing weights during competition? Why didn't they just eat barbells for breakfast?

Ireland's Cian Healy during a gym session.
Ireland's Cian Healy during a gym session.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ok - it's over! We know who won and we know why they won. It's always interesting though to look at trends, particularly physiological ones to see what the top teams are doing - how the players are changing their approach to things.

Before we do, I'd like to clear up a little misapprehension we have about ourselves. I read with some amusement that some commentators were giving out about the inequities of the scheduling of fixtures for Tier 2 teams during the pool section of the World Cup.

I have to admit that I thought Ireland, Wales, England, France and Scotland had plenty of time and space to recover from the rigours of their scheduled Test matches.

Lest we forget about the results of this four-yearly audit - Australia, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand are in Tier 1, us lot are Tier 2, and all the rest are Tier 3 and let's not forget also that Tier 3 are making more progress on us than we are making on Tier 1. Just thought I'd mention that.

There are a number of things that struck me about this competition. This may have been a watershed in terms of the physiological footprint. The competition that I witnessed seems to have transformed from an anaerobic battle to an aerobic battle. As usual, the fittest team won the competition. For some reason the All Blacks are fitter than everyone else - even the Aussies who were out on their feet in the last quarter looking a division down on them in their full 80-minute condition.


The clue is in the body shapes. Sure New Zealand had freaks like Ma'a Nonu, Brodie Retallick and Julian Savea. New Zealand's unstoppable left wing is two stone lighter than he was when he started playing for the All Blacks, yet there is no deficit in power - lean, mean fighting machine.

Retallick is an awesome physical specimen. Yet you got a better idea of what his body could do when he charged down Freddie Michalak's chip. The guy was rangy and all athletic vectors when he scooped up the pill and charged over - that was Wesley Fofana trying to chase him down without success.

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Sam Whitelock, his buddy in the second-row, is a big man but I'd guess that his body fat count is in single digits. In fact, most of their starting XV would be in that bracket. Nowadays 115kgs is relatively light for an international-class second-row - most big-size second-row SCT players wouldn't be far from that weight - some are way over it.

The thing about Whitelock though is that there is no power deficit at scrum time or at the clean-out or putting his shoulder into a ball carrier. Less is more it would seem.

It is one of the things that amazes me about the southern hemisphere teams - the physical and even mental maturity of their athletes and rugby players is astonishing.

I remember watching Richie McCaw start his international career at Lansdowne Road aged just 20 - a child - against a pretty decent Irish back-row of David Wallace, Eric Miller and Anthony Foley. He lit the old ground up like a Halloween bonfire. How do you get to be that good that early?

The warrior code and uncompromising excellence still shone in Twickenham last Sunday. The T-shirts said it all: "I'm not an alcoholic; I just have to have a drink every time Richie McCaw is offside." McCaw looked streamlined and ripped too and was stuck in fifth gear as Beauden Barrett scored his late try.

In the age profiles - you just cannot ignore what Argentina are producing. Tomas Lavanini, their star second-row, at 22 not a pick on him, was handing out physical punishment, striding round the park and line-busting for fun. Guido Petti, just aged 20, doing the same. Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa, only 22 years of age.

Where are our 20-year-olds? Our academies are turning them into muscle-bound specimens who occupy the twilight zone of the British and Irish Cup. Is it the case that Irish boys just aren't ready or is it a state of mind?

It was interesting to note the influence of Dane Coles - small, light, mobile, highly skilled and as quick as a wing three-quarter and a prolific scorer of some sensational tries. Is it just a coincidence that he is much smaller than the average 'Test' hooker?

Why did the All Blacks go for no second-row cover on their bench? Luke Romana would get his game in any other country in the world. Instead, Steve Hansen goes for the dynamic Victor Vito - good-sized blindside but way off the spec required for international second-row duty. Was it a risk just to have Vito and Sam Cane on the bench?

Not at all - it was all a part of the match plan. When the lumbering giants were getting tired beating each other up, introduce two really sharp ball players who could just stoke up some opportunity or punch some holes in a defence.

What about Nehe Milner-Skudder? Surely he is too small. If Ireland had got to the final we would have box-kicked the bejaysus out of him.

I just can't help thinking that if Santiago Cordero and Juan Imhoff and even the petite Nicolas Sanchez were able to stand Ireland's defence up and dance around them what would Milner-Skudder have done to us? Small, nippy, quick-thinking, nimble wingers with a step have always bothered Ireland.

Aaron Smith, what size is he? His size was in direct contrast to the huge influence he had on the All Blacks' winning campaign. Has this been a small man's World Cup without us even realising it?

I don't mean to be heightist here but have smaller men lit the touch paper on a bit of downsizing. Were we or were we not rhapsodising about the influence of Michael Hooper and David Pocock? OK, Pocock is built like an anvil but he is not by any means tall. That back-row in tandem with Will Genia was a hugely impressive trinity.

One of the best scrum-halves in the competition was Fumiaki Tanaka. At 166cms (5' 4"), you could scarcely conceive that he could compete at this level. Surely when Victor Matfield ran at him he would need a stick to scrape him off his boots. Matfield and other Springbok forwards were felled effectively by the tiny man on that famous day. Ayumu Goromaru, their superstar full-back, is a comparative giant at 185cm (5' 11").

If body shapes and sizes are changing down - well that is a welcome development. The high tide of gigantism - of Uini Atonio at 197cm and 145 kgs - is just ridiculous.

At a World Cup where there was a promotional video produced by the Irish team with Cian Healy in the van doing an animal weights session - well, it was instructive. Why didn't they bring a chilled Chablis and some condiments and just eat their barbells for breakfast.

Weight-room conditioning and the quest for size has a role to play in every rugby squad - but Ireland got bounced off the road by a younger, fresher, leaner, smaller (in the backs) team.

In a tournament situation, why are we still doing weights right in the middle of the competition? An hour-long session just dries the sap out of a player. In an amalgam of reasons why Ireland were uncompetitive on the day against Argentina - well they just looked tired.

The quest for size has gone too far to the detriment of more important skills. Time to lose some weight, time to get out of the weights room (especially the academies) and time to get lean.

The ghosts of Christophe Dominici, Shane Williams and Peter Stringer might tell you too - time to pick a few little 'uns!

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