Is bigger really better?
October 18, 2009
Isaac Ross will not tour with the All Blacks © Getty Images
Picture the next few weeks in the life of All Blacks lock Isaac Ross. While his team-mates, for much of the season at least, are broadening their horizons - first against the Wallabies in Tokyo and then in Europe - he will be hitting the gym. All the time, apparently.
After playing the opening eight Tests of the All Blacks' season, Ross has been told to bulk up. Throughout the season questions have been raised about the Cantabrian's propensity to neglect the grubbier aspects of the game, notably his anonymity at rucks. Paired with the veteran Brad Thorn, Ross was outplayed in South Africa by Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.
Indeed, it is Botha who seems to have forced this conundrum. The premier 'enforcer' in the game, every international side is on the lookout for a brooding presence whose favoured pastime is clearing out. The British & Irish Lions dispensed with the athletic Alun-Wyn Jones in favour of a marauding Simon Shaw to good effect in their epic Test series defeat to the Boks and the All Blacks could call on no similar backup while on tour.
Tom Donnelly made a decent debut in place of Ross in the final Tri-Nations game of the season against the Wallabies and in the best possible sense he is the perfect tonic for an All Blacks side that seemingly has forgotten how to practise the basics. Donnelly will carry, clear out and win his lineout ball. It may be bread-and-butter requirements, but after the tribulations of recent months that's what Graham Henry wants as he sets about fixing world rugby's most errant lineout.
Ross, meanwhile has to bide his time. How he is supposed to learn how to improve his game from the inside of a gym is a mystery, but size appears to be the order of the day. At 6'7'' and 260lbs, Ross is hardly what you'd call a small-fry; in fact he's 20lbs heavier than the aforementioned Botha.
"Professional rugby at the top level is hugely physical and probably the people who have set that standard are the Springboks," said Henry in July. "We respect that and try to match them in that part of the game. If you don't match them, then you get second. We just have to come up to that challenge really."
All of this suggests that it's either a lack of playing time that's hindering Ross, or a different remit in terms of his responsibilities. He will now have to find a magical way of improving his skills outside of a regimented coaching regime, where he could be told, face to face, how he had gone wrong and what was expected of him.
The All Blacks' decision is a puzzler in terms of the effect it will have on Ross and also a worrying development from those voices questioning the increased dangers for players as they get bigger and bigger.
Lions doctor James Robson raised the point after assessing the wreckage left behind by the fiercely-contested second Test between the Lions and South Africa, a game which resulted in a dislocated shoulder for prop Adam Jones, a fractured cheekbone for Gethin Jenkins and tour-ending injuries for Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts.
"I think we are reaching a level where the players have got too big for their skill levels," said Robson. "I think they have become a little too muscle-bound and too bulky. I think you may see changes in the physical nature of the player that brings them back a little - I hope so - in order to speed up the game and introduce a higher level of skill."
As the opposite appears to be happening in the case of Ross, we may soon reach a breaking point. Players are now better protected than ever by organisations such as the recently re-branded Rugby Players' Association (RPA) but are continually challenged by the nature of the game.
If your opponent is bigger than you, the natural reaction is to get bigger yourself in pursuit of a level playing field. South Africa's fabulous ability to 'dish out the stoosh' has brought them a Tri-Nations title this year and a place at the summit of the world game and their model for success will no doubt be an inspiration.
Former All Black skipper Tana Umaga once famously said, "This ain't tiddlywinks, mate", and he's right. It shouldn't be open warfare either, though.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.