Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Bigger no longer better in Super Rugby

Bigger has been better for 20 years but that view is changing, writes Gregor Paul
The Damian McKenzie and Brad Weber combination has been electric for the Chiefs. Photo / Getty
The Damian McKenzie and Brad Weber combination has been electric for the Chiefs. Photo / Getty

The little men have taken control of Super Rugby. It has been the most audacious hi-jacking, as unexpected as it has been revolutionary. Since rugby went professional in 1995, it has been gripped by the bigger, faster, stronger mantra. Sports scientists estimate that, on average, the typical Super Rugby player of today is 30 per cent larger and more powerful than his counterpart of 2005 and that the men of 2005 were 30 per cent bigger and more powerful than the players of 1996.

Power athletes have tended to be the sport's dominant force.

Bigger, has for the last 20 years, been deemed better and, in some coaching and selection circles, fixed views have been formed about what size athletes have to be at the top level.

It was only three years ago that the great JPR Williams aired his fears that rugby had shut the door on the smaller player and would pay a terrible price as a consequence.

"My big worry is that small players are going out of the game," lamented Williams, the former Welsh and British Lions fullback.

"If it's all going to be about size, then rugby union will die. Its strength has always been that, regardless of how big or small you are, there's always a place in the side for you if you're good enough. The players now are much bigger, less skillful and it's all about power now."

Not in New Zealand, where the game is heading down a different path. The obsession with the bigger athlete, if ever there was one, is over. A new story is being written by a new type of athlete. Small but highly skilled is a combination that is proving effective, deadly even. Smash and bash has become pass and dash in the last two years.

New Zealand teams are dominating Super Rugby and there's a long list of reasons to explain why.

Somewhere near the top is the breadth of their selection vision and open mindedness on what type of player they are willing to develop.

There's no rigid devotion to size, as such, and instead assessments are made on the ability of the player to contribute. Little men are flourishing all over the country and changing the way the game is played. Much of the brainless, smash-it-up-the-middle thinking has gone and instead the foundation of most New Zealand teams is speed and diversity.

The Chiefs are the best, but by no means only example of a team prepared to build their game on the smaller athlete. When they won the title in 2012, they relied heavily on the direct, brute force of the 110kg Sonny Bill Williams. In 2016, they are in a commanding position but there is no brute force behind their game. They are all about speed, skill and vision and their attacking game is built on three, relatively tiny pillars.

So far this year, defences haven't been able to cope with the electric running and creativity of Damian McKenzie. He is so often the launch pad for their attack and he's barely 1.75m and 80kg. He's been the most exciting talent to emerge this season and yet he'd be considered small for first XV rugby. He's played his way to the edge of All Blacks selection, demonstrating there is a genuine pathway for young players who aren't blessed with size.

"I think it is a case-by-case scenario," says New Zealand Rugby high performance player development manager Mike Anthony, who has been involved in the identification and emergence of McKenzie.

"Damian has developed an incredible skill-set. We establish early on where the kids come from and what sort of physical shifts will be realistic for them to make. There would be no point in us saying to Damian that he should put on 10kg and try to play at 90kg. That doesn't work.

"We look at the profile of the player and ask how they could fit into the mix [of the team]. We don't want to have a mindset that says players have to be a certain size to play in a position."

The second Chiefs pillar is Aaron Cruden who, at 85kg, is light in comparison with other test first-fives. But since winning his first cap in 2010, Cruden has shown that his footwork, agility, speed and vision are all world class. He's brave and technically proficient on defence and has eliminated his size being an area of concern for coaches.

The same is true of the third Chiefs' pillar, Brad Weber.

He is the smallest New Zealander in Super Rugby at 1.72m and 75kg, but he's also close to being one of the most influential. His speed across the ground close to the breakdown is impressive and he uses his footwork and agility to find space and spark the Chiefs into life.

The No9 who is the most influential is Aaron Smith, who is only marginally bigger than Weber. What Smith did in 2012 when he emerged as the first choice at the Highlanders is spark a re-think on what size a halfback needed to be to play at the top level.

Smith arrived in the professional ranks at the tail end of the game's obsession with picking giant halfbacks - players such as Justin Marshall, Byron Kelleher and Jimmy Cowan who were big enough to be auxiliary loose forwards.

Smith brought such a devastating passing game and was so quick around the field that no one bothered to worry about whether he was big enough.

He opened the possibility of the All Blacks playing wider and faster and his size has actually been an advantage in an attacking sense as he's often been able to step and dance through tight gaps. Bigger forwards find it hard to get their hands on him, which is true also of the other little man superstar - Nehe Milner-Skudder.

The Hurricanes wing-cum-fullback was the best new talent to emerge last year and bamboozled defences with his footwork and agility. He's powerfully built at 90kg, but he's fundamentally a small man. Many other test teams are picking wings the size of George North, who is 1.94m and 109kg.

Israel Folau is a similar size and then there is Nemani Nadolo - all 130kg of him.

Milner-Skudder became a critical attacking weapon for the All Blacks last year. He was all about trickery and creativity rather than power and brutality.

Damien McKenzie

Age: 21
Position: Fullback, first five-eighths
Height: 1.75m
Weight: 81kg
Super Rugby debut: 2015
Did you know? Christian Cullen was McKenzie's favourite player growing up. Cullen was 85kg.

Aaron Cruden

Age: 27
Position: First five-eighths
Height: 1.78m
Weight: 82kg
Super Rugby debut: 2010
Did you know? Cruden has been Daniel Carter's understudy for a number of years. Carter is 94kg.

Brad Weber

Age: 25
Position: Halfback
Height: 1.75m
Weight: 75kg
Super Rugby debut: 2014
Did you know? Weber is New Zealand's smallest Super Rugby player. Japanese import Fumiaki Tanaka, who plays for the Highlanders, is 1.66m and 72kg. Weber switched from Otago to Waikato in 2013 because of a lack of game time stuck behind Tanaka.

Aaron Smith

Age: 27
Position: Halfback
Height: 1.71m
Weight: 85kg
Super Rugby debut: 2011
Did you know? The All Blacks went through an era of selecting big halfbacks, including Justin Marshall (1.79m, 95kg) Byron Kelleher (1.75m, 95kg) and Jimmy Cowan (1.86m, 92kg) because of a belief they needed defensive prowess around the ruck.

Nehe Milner-Skudder

Age: 25
Position: Wing
Height: 1.8m
Weight: 90kg
Super Rugby debut: 2015
Did you know? If Milner-Skudder plays against the Lions next year, he could line up against George North, who is 1.94m and 109kg.

- NZ Herald

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