Rugby has always meant to be a game for all shapes and sizes but if the recent blood and thunder Ireland v England Six Nations collision in Dublin reminded those of us coming off a summer break in New Zealand anything it's that players aren't getting any smaller.

And, further to that, defences aren't getting any more forgiving. So spare a thought for the smaller player at the top level bravely putting his or her body into increasingly more dangerous positions, a player such as wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, who at 1.8m and 90kg is invariably the smallest outside back on the field if neither Damian McKenzie (1.77m, 78kg) nor Richie Mo'unga (1.76m, 83kg) are involved.

Milner-Skudder, the 28-year-old in his final season with the Hurricanes before taking up a contract with French club Toulon, has often paid a high price for his profession; he has endured several shoulder injuries since making his test debut four years ago, and the latest, suffered while playing against Japan in Tokyo last November, will keep him on the sideline for a couple of weeks yet.

But although the injuries have played a part in his decision to play offshore while he still can, Milner-Skudder has never been deterred and insists rugby can still cater for players with skill and agility rather than pure size and power.


"I think so; you think of the Damian McKenzies or even the Richie Mo'ungas – there's definitely room for us smaller fellas," he told the Herald. "As people have said, over the years players have got bigger and bigger due to the training and weight programmes. We [smaller players] can't do too much to change our height or shape but it's about playing the best brand of footy we can play and trying to utilise our strengths as much as we can and have a good crack at it.

"I wouldn't be playing if I thought otherwise – I'd pull the pin and leave it for the bigger fellas. I know there's definitely a place for us smaller fellas in the game."

Milner-Skudder's evasiveness was a point of difference for the All Blacks at the World Cup four years ago, and first-five or fullback McKenzie, who made his test debut a year later, has a similar ability to mimic the late, great footballer George Best and give would-be defenders "twisted blood" as it was famously put.

Fortunately for the 23-year-old Chiefs player, his body is holding up better than Milner-Skudder's.

But they, and Crusaders and All Blacks No10 Mo'unga, 24, could be increasingly seen as endangered species in the new rugby world order which allows for defences to illegally creep offside to shut down the time and space of ball carriers.

Milner-Skudder's Hurricanes and All Blacks teammate Beauden Barrett has been put under big pressure over the past couple of years by teams are varied as the Crusaders, the British and Irish Lions, England, Ireland and South Africa, and his performances have suffered as a result.

On the eve of Super Rugby's start, Milner-Skudder said Hurricanes head coach John Plumtree was working on new ideas to combat what could be called a trend in the game but what others would call a scourge.

"There's been a massive shift over the last few years with teams putting an emphasis on their defensive structures," Milner-Skudder said. "It's been well reported about teams bringing a lot more line-speed and trying to shut down the ball carrier's time and space. With guys who like to have a crack with the ball, that's something we have to deal with.


"Over the last few months or years the kudos has gone to the teams and defensive coaches who have come up with ways to shut down attacks. I guess that's exciting though because it's a challenge.

"We've definitely touched on it and because of the way Plums, our head coach, has been in the defensive set-up for a few years now, he's a big driver of bringing that line-speed. We've got the perfect defence team to practice against. We've been trying to tweak a few things and trying to find ways to combat those defensive structures. Without giving away too much, hopefully we'll see it unfold this season."

Milner-Skudder's shoulder injury means he will be a spectator at today's pre-season match between the Hurricanes and Blues at Mangatainoka but said he would watch with interest the changes brought about by new coach Leon MacDonald.

"Obviously they've got a few personnel changes and I think bringing someone like Ma'a [Nonu] back into the mix… I was a fan of his growing up and obviously I had the pleasure of playing alongside him for a couple of seasons.

"To bring someone back with that experience and hearing the chat coming out of the camp about him training the house down… to have him alongside someone like Sonny [Bill Williams] who is the ultimate professional, the impact they'll have on some of the younger boys will be huge.

"I'm a massive fan of those guys. On paper they have X-factor and talent right through the whole squad. Hopefully they don't do too much damage against us boys. I wish them well."


NZ teams in Super Rugby's opening weekend:
Friday, February 15:
Chiefs v Highlanders, Hamilton.
Saturday, February 16: Blues v Crusaders, Auckland; Waratahs v Hurricanes, Sydney.