Ask John
Size matters, New Zealand scrum changes and leading Welsh sides in Europe
John Griffiths
November 9, 2009

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask John where renowned rugby historian John Griffiths will answer any rugby-related query you have!

So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about the game we love but didn't know who to ask, or you think you can stump our expert - then get involved by sending us a question.

In this edition, John answers questions on the changing shape of the international rugby player, the end of New Zealand's 2-3-2 scrum formation and Wales' most successful sides on the European stage.

The media has attributed the recent spate of injuries to England's leading players to their being bulkier than in the past. It would be interesting to see some figures. Alex, London
The statistics are revealing and support the hypothesis. A glance for instance at the individual heights and weights of the England pack that played in the opening Five Nations match of fifty years ago shows that, on average, they were lighter than the backs who featured in the corresponding match earlier this season.

England's forwards v Wales on January 17, 1959: (Height/Weight)
Larry Webb - 6-0½/15-9
John Wackett - 5-8/12-5
Gordon Bendon - 5-10/15-10
John Currie - 6-3/15-0
David Marques - 6-5/15-12
John Herbert - 5-11½/13-5
Brian Wightman - 6-2½/14-10
Reg Higgins - 5-10/13-12
- 6-0/14-8

England's backs v Wales on February 14, 2009: (Height/Weight)
Delon Armitage - 6-1/14-9
Paul Sackey - 6-1½/14-7
Mike Tindall - 6-1/15-12
Riki Flutey - 5-10½/14-2
Mark Cueto - 6-0/14-13
Andy Goode - 5-11/14-13
Harry Ellis - 5-10/14-7
Average - 6-0/14-11

And just to underline the point, it's worth adding that David Marques, the 6-5 Harlequins lock in the 1959 pack, was the then-tallest man to have played Test rugby, while Matt Banahan, at 6-7 and 17-4, England's all-time tallest threequarter, was not included in the side that played against Wales earlier this year.

I understand the NZRFU formally decided to abandon the 2-3-2 scrum formation in 1932. What reasons did they give? Peter Shortell, England
Years of practice and acquired coaching expertise had enabled the All Blacks to use their 2-3-2 scrum to master the customary eights employed by opponents. Their spare forward was employed as a "rover" to help clear up loose ball as it emerged from the scrum or act as a wing forward in defence. The defensive aspects of the rover's game upset Mr "Bim" Baxter, the manager of the British/Irish Lions side that toured New Zealand in 1930. After the tourists' opening game against Wanganui, he condemned the New Zealand system at the after-match banquet. In his rhetoric he castigated the rover for what he considered were off-side activities and obstruction.

Further invectives by Baxter came in the wake of the Lions' games against Taranaki and Wairarapa. The upshot was that, in 1931, the IRB changed the law on scrummaging in an attempt to enforce uniformity among the rugby-playing nations. The amended law restricted striking for the ball in the tunnel until it had passed "the first three feet of the front row forwards of each team." At one fell swoop the New Zealand method of hooking the ball in the 2-3-2 scrum was outlawed. The law effectively compelled the New Zealanders to change their tactics - to persist with 2-3-2 would have greatly restricted legal attempts by New Zealand's hookers when striking for the ball.

To comply with the new laws, the NZRFU, at its AGM in April 1932, felt they had little alternative but to adopt a scrummage formation with three men in the front row. Indeed, during their tour of South Africa in 1928, it is true that the New Zealanders had often struggled to face up to the Springbok pack with its 3-4-1 formation and, after suffering a 17-0 defeat in the first Test, had actually adopted a three-man front-row to level the series by winning the second Test 7-6 in Johannesburg. But from 1932 the rover and 2-3-2 scrum were permanently abandoned and the first Test match played with the new formation under the new laws resulted in a 22-17 defeat by Australia in Sydney in early July. The New Zealanders quickly adapted, however, and won the two later Tests to take the series 2-1

Were the England and Wales teams numbered or lettered for the first international match at Twickenham in 1910? Anon
Neither. Numbering to help crowds identify players and to promote the sale of official programmes was an Australian/New Zealand innovation. It is true that teams were numbered in several of the international matches played by the early tour sides to Britain/Ireland, including the 1905 All Blacks and 1908-09 Wallabies, but the custom was not regularly adopted in the Five Nations Championship until the 1920s. Both England and Wales wore plain jerseys for that first Twickenham match a hundred years ago. The Welsh jerseys were a deeper red than the dyes used today while England's shirts were cream rather than the pristine white familiar to their current supporters. The current special display at The Museum of Rugby at Twickenham to celebrate the ground's centenary season includes the jersey worn by Ben Gronow who kicked-off in that first international.

Which Welsh club have never qualified for the knock out stages of the Heineken Cup? Tony Brearton, Cyprus
The list of Welsh qualifiers for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, season-by-season reads:

1995-96 Cardiff, Swansea
1996-97 Cardiff, Llanelli
1997-98 Cardiff (after beating Llanelli in a special quarter-final play-off round)
1998-99 Llanelli, Pontypridd
1999-2000 Llanelli, Cardiff
2000-01 Cardiff, Swansea
2001-02 Llanelli
2002-03 Llanelli
2003-04 Llanelli Scarlets
2004-05 No qualifier
2005-06 No qualifier
2006-07 Llanelli Scarlets
2007-08 Ospreys, Cardiff Blues
2008-09 Cardiff Blues, Ospreys

Of the four Welsh regions currently eligible for the Heineken Cup, the Newport Gwent Dragons are the only side that has never qualified for the knock-out stages.

What were the team lists for the opening game of the 1980 British Lions tour to South Africa against Eastern Province? Jofi Babobski South Africa
The opening match of that year's tour was played on 10 May in Port Elizabeth. The Lions won 28-16.

Eastern Province: J P Pretorius; H L Potgieter, D Campher, H Lotz, C Heunis; G S Cowley, M R O'Shea; D J Olivier, J P Delport, J Ferreira, G Human, S W P Burger, M van der Merwe (captain), N Snyman, A Johnson Replacements: G van Zyl for Lotz (26 mins); T Kankowski for Potgieter (27 mins)

Scorers Tries: Heunis, Campher Conversion: Cowley Penalty Goals: Pretorius, Cowley

British/Irish Lions XV: B H Hay; H E Rees, R W R Gravell, P J Morgan, M A C Slemen; W G Davies, T D Holmes; G Price, P J Wheeler, F E Cotton, W B Beaumont (captain), A J Martin, J Squire, J R Beattie, S M Lane Replacements: D L Quinnell for Lane (2 mins); J M Renwick for Davies (29 mins)

Scorers Tries: Slemen, Holmes, Rees Conversions: Davies, Renwick Penalty Goals: Davies (2), Renwick Dropped Goal: Davies

Referee S Strydom (Orange Free State)

The second-minute injury suffered by Stuart Lane, the Cardiff and Wales flanker, ended his tour. The Eastern Province replacement wing, Tino Kankowski, and their forward Schalk Burger (senior) were the fathers of the well-known current Springbok back-row Test players.

Why does the match the British Lions played against Fiji in 1977 not feature as a Test match? According to the Lions website it was a Test. Phil Morris, Scotland
The game is regarded as an official British/Irish Lions XV tour match, but at the time the IRB's rules stated that their member Unions could not award "caps" (ie give Test status) for games against countries from outside the Five Nations or Tri-Nations. It was not until March 1981 that the Board relaxed this rule, paving the way for the Home Unions (and the Lions) to give full Test status for matches against Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Italy, Romania and so on.

It is clear from the Lions line-up for the game in Suva (which Fiji, led by Pio Tikoisuva won 25-21) that the tourists did not field a Test-strength side. It was a mid-week match played only three days after the fourth Test of the series against New Zealand. Phil Bennett, the Lions' skipper, played on the right wing to accommodate his compatriot, John Bevan, at fly-half while Tony Faulkner and Alun Lewis, replacement players flown out from Britain, were playing in only their second matches of the visit. Gordon Brown, moreover, the cornerstone of the Test pack against the All Blacks, was a bench replacement that day.

Earlier Lions teams had played against international sides representing Ceylon (1950) and Canada (1966) but these, like the Fiji match of 1977, have never been designated as full-blown Tests.


Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.

  • Football

  • Cricket

  • Rugby

    • Days
    • Hrs
    • Mins
    • Secs

    F1 - German GP

  • OtherLive >>

    Boxing - Nelson v Wilson; Simmons v Dickinson; Joshua v Gavern (Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle)
    Golf - Houston Open
    Snooker - China Open
    Tennis - Miami Open