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Paul Kimmage: Big is beautiful in rugby and a price is being paid

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Jamie Heaslip was explaining how he had transformed himself from "a clinically obsese 17-year-old" to one of the fittest players in Irish rugby

Jamie Heaslip was explaining how he had transformed himself from "a clinically obsese 17-year-old" to one of the fittest players in Irish rugby

SPORTSFILE

Jamie Heaslip was explaining how he had transformed himself from "a clinically obsese 17-year-old" to one of the fittest players in Irish rugby

- See fruit's bad for yeh.

- I always said it.

- All tha' one-in-five bolloxology.

- Fuckin' scientists - they're fuckin' eejits. How could fuckin' kiwis be good for yeh?

- She's fuckin' furious - at home. She's thinkin' o' suin'.

- Suin' who?

- Fuckin' everyone - far as I can make ou'. Says she's suffered permanent spinal damage carryin' all them bananas home from SuperValu.

Roddy Doyle,

Two More Pints

You can buy a sausage for 60c at my local Centra - a hot sausage that is, cooked and ready to eat. I checked the price yesterday. Are sausages still bad for you? They used to be but these things change. Margarine was good but now it's bad. Avocados were bad but now they're good. And they change their mind about coffee every week.

The last time I ate sausages was 1983. I was a wannabe plumber back then, serving my time in the maintenance department of Aer Rianta at Dublin Airport. It was a good job with regular hours but you needed a strong stomach. And you had to scrub your nails.

We spent a lot of time fishing tampons from the sewage pipes and listening to fat men clear their bowels.

But the bangers were great. They cooked them fresh every morning in the Mezzanine cafe and we'd nip up before 11.0 and take them back to the hut for our break. There's a lot to be said for a hot sausage sandwich. I almost won the Tour of Britain that year. Colum McCann came to interview me and wrote the story for the Evening Press. I was 'The Flying Plumber', a champion cyclist fuelled by pork.

And then I was advised to stop.

Mary McCreery was her name. She had a PhD in Nutrition from Trinity and had just been appointed to the Irish Olympic Team. Los Angeles was on the horizon. We were instructed to list everything we ate for a week and summoned to a meeting with the nutritionist.

Mary was gifted and brilliant, but mostly she was gorgeous and it was a struggle to focus as she went through my forms. My mother's cooking was good, she said, and she seemed happy overall with the content, balance and variety of my diet. But then she dropped the bomb: there must be no more trips to the Mezzanine cafe before break-time.

The sausages had to go.

I thought about those sausages, and how much sport has changed, as I was driving home on Thursday evening. Jamie Heaslip was with Ger Gilroy on Off the Ball and explaining how he had transformed himself from "a clinically obese 17-year-old" to one of the fittest and least injury-prone players in Irish rugby.

Diet was a major factor. Heaslip had begun his day with a five-egg omelet and grazed on salads, meat and some nutritional supplements from a sponsor, MaxiNutrition, for the rest of the day.

"I try to avoid sugar outside of the training windows," he explained. "And that's where [MaxiNutrition] products come in really handy because it gives you the perfect mix of everything post training . . . and those BCAA amino acids [you need] before training."

We didn't have nutritional supplements when I was a lad: a Mars bar, a bit of cake, a few Dextrosol and a pocketful of raisins and you were ready for war.

Amino acids?

No idea.

Ferritin?

What's that?

Protein?

Cheese, right?

Creatine?

Sorry bud.

What about the kids today? Gilroy inquired. Was it (the importance of diet and conditioning) something the 15/16-year-olds who are trying to become rugby players were aware of, or was it just in the professional bubble? "Well, obviously we're at the top end of it and eventually it all drips down, the training methods, the food methods," Heaslip replied. "My concern in some places is that they are probably listening to people who aren't fully aware or fully informed on what is happening. And what is going on."

But what is going on?

Check out 'Jamie's Top Products' on the MaxiNutrition website and you find:

Progain: "The ideal solution for getting the extra calories and protein needed to increase muscle size." (€69.99 for an eight-day supply)

Cyclone Milk: "A high protein milk drink with creatine to support your strength and power goals." (€31.99 for an eight-day supply)

CLA-1000: "A simple capsule that provides your body with a daily delivery of conjugated linoleic acid." (€38.99 for a 15-day supply)

Progain Flapjacks: "An ideal high protein formula for hard gainers and weight trainers needing extra calories to increase muscle size." (€34.68 for a six-day supply)

Check out the IRFU website and you find a statement advising against the use of these supplements from Ruth Wood-Martin, their national performance nutritionist: "The IRFU strongly advises against the use of nutritional aids, in particular creatine, in young players under 18 years of age.

"Also the use of protein supplements should not be recommended by schools, coaches, teachers or others involved in the training of young athletes."

But who do you look to when you're 17 years old? Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray (another MaxiNutrition ambassador) or Ruth Wood-Martin?

The real problem of course is the game. Big is beautiful in rugby now and has been for some time. The game is weighted not in favour of the dexterous or most skillful, but of the heaviest and most powerful. And a terrible price is being paid.

Last month, David Walsh made some startling observations in a brilliant column for The Sunday Times: "At any time in the French Top 14, 30 per cent of every team squad is injured. The casualty rate is not that much lower in the home countries. And all the time rugby union continues to cull those players who fall short physically.

"Last year I spoke at an independent school and had no difficulty picking out the rugby players in an audience of 200 boys. Months before, a member of the rugby team had been expelled for using anabolic steroids. We are creating a game that at some point we might no longer love. As it is we have a sport that many parents, especially mothers, deem too dangerous."

He also proposed a solution.

"There is a well-respected economist in Singapore who is an advocate of the need for a maximum wage. Privately, his colleagues agree with him, but publicly they say nothing. For fear of seeming foolish. Let us offer an opinion that will seem foolish: rugby's administrators should consider maximum weights for every position and give themselves the chance at some point in the future to be able to say it is a game for all sizes and shapes.

"Who, besides the companies that manufacture supplements, would lose if the players were stopped in their quest for more bulk? You can argue that such an artificial ceiling would penalise those who are naturally big and heavy. Yes, it would. But how many talented young players have been forced out of the game because they just weren't big enough."

It's a great question. And at the risk of sounding foolish, I agree. What would Drico and Paulie and Jamie and Johnny say? Are they happy that big is beautiful? Are they scared by concussion and the hits? Would they prefer to eat sausages or protein shakes? Is this a game they would like their kids to play?

Sunday Indo Sport