Tuesday, January 17, 2012

//Getty Images The never ending debate - Size vs. Style, Power vs. Panache

The upcoming Six Nations will make for compelling viewing for a number of reasons, namely as we in the South muse over whether we shall see free flowing poetry or the bash and crash style attritional rugby that can at times dominates rugby in Europe.

Such rugby is not always dictated by the geographic location of its teams, but often by the type of players selected by the coaches, often with a simple style in mind.

Whether size matters – in a purely rugby sense – has led itself to differing periods of domination over the ages for respective rugby nations.

The great-grandfathers of All Blacks rugby, the esteemed ‘Originals’ and later the ‘Invincibles’, would cut their respective swathes through Europe for multiple reasons in regards to what sort of men (and their size versus their style) the New Zealand greats were.

Uncompromising 'blokes' from the rural regions of New Zealand gave rise to popular legends of All Blacks cum farmers who ploughed fence posts into the ground with hammer sized fists while carrying a sheep over each shoulder.

However for all the power and at times brutal play on display from the All Blacks a century ago, it was their “scientific” approach to the game according to the Northern Hemisphere media that set them apart.

Not only were their forwards relishing the opportunity to run with the ball – indeed, running as if they were ‘all backs’ – they had pre-determined positions in the scrum (as opposed to the first down method employed by the Home Nations) while the at times controversial use of a ‘wing forward’ was said to be so beneficial that some believe the International Rugby Board amended the position to cull the dominance of All Blacks teams.

Welsh golden eras were executed by their backline wizards who were the contradiction of picking the biggest meanest player available; French rugby began its rise on the back of wild-eyed forwards who had an appetite for the rough stuff, while England’s rule in the nineties came from immense goliaths up front with faces only their mothers could love.

Telegraph rugby writer Paul Ackford wrote over the weekend that the Red Rose now cannot call on such hard men, and this has given way to the ‘gym monkey culture’.

He wrote that in years past “It was team policy, a deliberate attempt to intimidate the opposition by sending the roughest, toughest, ugliest brutes out at the head of the queue.”

Further explanation and examples from Dorian West, Northampton’s forwards coach, and Rob Baxter, Exeter’s coach – went on to explain that raw physicality and brutality had changed.

It wasn’t so much a case of bullying or fighting, but now expressing dominance in purely rugby terms, namely hitting hard in the tackle, carry ferociously into contact, but most importantly consistently get up onto their feet to do it all over again.

This last aspect is perhaps the most crucial element of the game.

Size, skill, the number of test caps or who is the purely better team often comes down to which side can get up off the deck and reset with enough speed and efficiency to put the first phase structures into place.

Often much of the All Blacks brilliance comes from watching them off the ball, seeing how quickly they retune their field positions.

It helps that the raw aspects as above are featured, and none would encapsulate these features more than current New Zealand Player of the Year Jerome Kaino – the epitome of an enforcer.

His captain Richie McCaw may not suit this mould, but while the 103-test flanker will be the first to admit he isn’t the most proficient All Black in the gym or during strength testing, the one consistent with test level training is that the openside flanker is king when it comes to overall fitness.

In an interview with Fairfax Media in 2009, McCaw gave his input into the debate.

“Myself, fitness is my first thing. Strength-wise I'm certainly OK, but I'm definitely not the strongest,” the All Blacks captain said.

"I picked up a few injuries when I was younger through doing weights and it sort of put me off a little bit. I tended to carry on not too bad just doing rehab stuff in the gym without trying to make huge gains."

He said gym work can help, but key was lasting for the 80 minutes and improving your overall attributes as a rugby player.

"That's probably through my own experience that I'm not so big on that (bodybuilding style gym work),” he said.

“Fitness has been my sort of thing, and my argument to people who say you should be stronger is that, maybe the first five or 10 minutes when everyone's fresh, it might be an advantage, but after 60 minutes when I'm still getting there and beating the other guys that's when you have more of an influence.

"It depends on the player. In rugby a lot of it is instinct and how you play the game. A big, strong, fast man isn't necessarily going to make a good rugby player.

"A good rugby player can get better by adding physical attributes, so that's what I balance up.

"To be fresh on Saturday, if that means not doing so many weights early in the week, then that's the decision you have to make."

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