Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Bigger, faster, stronger ... a new breed

Wales winger George North is the epitome of the modern day player who combines size, strength, speed and skill

What must have been going through Ben Foden’s mind as he watched Welsh winger George North breaking the line and bearing down on him?

I imagine he will have thanked teammate David Strettle for just about making it across to make a despairing tap tackle and knocking the giant Welsh winger off balance.

Otherwise Foden may have just come in for the sort of treatment handed out to Owen Farrell in the same game.

North is the latest sensation to come out of Wales, if not the Northern Hemisphere, and his statistics are truly impressive and frightening — 19 years of age, 6ft 4 inches tall, almost 16 and a half stone, lightning quick, skilful and maybe most worrying for his opponents, hungry for action.

I played in the era that experienced Jonah Lomu (pictured) in his pomp and the All Black will always remain the epitome of quite literally the rugby giant.

Lomu running at you, or maybe more apt, over you, was described as like standing in the path of a bicycle being pedalled flat out, getting tangled up in the spokes and spat out only to get up to see the bicycle racing ahead as if nothing had happened. Opposition players were the rugby equivalent of a speed bump.

At the time Jonah was regarded as a freak, but a recent report concluded what we all suspected was true — rugby players are getting bigger and taller.

Furthermore, these are two of the factors that apparently contribute to World Cup success along with the amount of time playing together i.e. experience together as a team.

Better health, better information on nutrition, more scientific strength and fitness techniques and an increasingly sophisticated array of supplements are all combining to produce rugby players of a different size and scale.

We are currently seeing this threat in the new age Welsh backline — George North looks down on Mike Phillips 6ft 3in, right in the eyes of Jamie Roberts 6ft 4in, and up to fellow winger Alex Cuthbert 6ft 6in.

The nearest player that Ireland can produce to rival this is Tommy Bowe and maybe, then, it is no coincidence that he has been Ireland’s sharpest cutting edge in the last five years.

In a way, I can’t help but think that it is a shame.

Traditionally, the big men (‘fatties’) went into the forwards while those with a slighter build got sent out to stand around in the backs.

Somehow it made sense, but the positions are all blurred now and to want a return to the amateur statistics would be like King Canute trying to turn back the waves.

It does beg the question whether there is room at the top level for small players. I subscribe to the clear and definitive answer — yes!

But if you are small, then you have to be utterly brilliant at something else. Peter Stringer was always one of my favourite players. Built like a rod of iron, he possessed a truly world class pass. It helps if you are lightning quick and possess dancing feet as much for self-preservation as to beat opponents.

Think about who George North has replaced – one of the greatest ever Welsh wings, Shane Williams.

Incredibly difficult to play against, you knew his sidestep was coming but you still couldn’t do anything about it. He could make you look and feel very stupid.

The same was true of Jason Robinson, ‘Billy Whizz’ — freakishly quick off the mark with an ability to change direction and explode into life at the same time. Ben Foden on top form is magical to watch.

The biggest backline I can remember seeing up close was that of Australia — Joe Roff, Matt Burke, Stirling Mortlock, Lote Teqiri, Wendell Sailor, Stephen Larkham — all huge men.

But reassuringly the one who made them tick was diminutive scrumhalf George Gregan, much like the current genius and marshalling of Will Genia.

The evidence is there. It’s not enough to be big any longer, you have got to be huge. And if you’re not, you had better be rapid, nimble and tough as teak. Rugby is not getting any less physical.