Small wonders

JON CARDINELLI says South African rugby is slowly but surely ridding itself of a conservative and limiting obsession with size.

All Gio Aplon needed to do was get up, and he’d be a hero. In one of the great rugby mismatches, Aplon had come face to face with Bakkies Botha at a ruck. The belligerent lock had flattened him, a robust action that would subsequently earn Botha a four-week suspension.

It was a significant moment, and for an instant, the Newlands crowd held its collective breath. To their delight, the diminutive winger got back on his feet and played on. Aplon had literally gone head to head with a 120kg behemoth and lived. If ever there was doubt concerning his aptitude for the brutality of top-flight rugby, it was seemingly eradicated in this instant.

But there shouldn’t have been any doubt. Rugby has changed. It’s no longer a sport reserved for the massive and muscle-bound. Slightly built players no longer prove the exception to the rule. The new law variations have allowed the smaller blokes to come into their own, and size is no longer a prerequisite for selection. If you’re good enough, you’re big enough.

Australia and New Zealand have always embraced this mantra, while South Africa is starting to come round. As seen by the 2010 Super 14 and Tri-Nations competitions, the Antipodeans are taking their preference for more agile backs to new levels. Matt Giteau, Cory Jane, James O’Connor, Anthony Faingaa, Rod Davies and Israel Dagg all fall into rugby’s lightweight category and yet performances for their respective franchises and countries have been as telling, and in some cases better, than those delivered by the heavier backs.

South African teams are slowly but surely following suit. Apart from Aplon, Juan de Jongh is embarrassing the non-believers at Test level, while Super Rugby and the Currie Cup have borne witness to the unique talents of Pat Lambie and Bjorn Basson. Throw Francois Hougaard and Lwazi Mvovo (who aren’t much bigger) into the mix, and you begin to understand why size is now less of a factor in selection than it has been in previous years.

Kicking played a major role in team tactics in 2009. The Springboks were the most successful side in the Tri-Nations thanks to their kick-chase strategy, a ploy that involved accurate box kicks and up-and-unders that were aggressively chased by the fastest players. If the opposition didn’t lose the ball in the air, the chances of losing possession in the ensuing breakdown was high given that defenders were allowed to compete more in this area.

The 2010 season has seen a change to the laws, and thus a change in approach. Unless these deep kicks are accurate, the likelihood of retrieving possession is slim now that the breakdown laws favour attacking sides. Teams are now selecting players who are able to counter-attack, players who are often slighter, shorter and more agile. Keeping possession is key, and if the opposition kicks deep, you can run it back knowing that even if you don’t break the line, you’re still likely to hold on to the ball.

‘The laws have played their part,’ says former Springbok wing Breyton Paulse. ‘Ten years ago the game was a lot tighter and forward-orientated, and there were more big boys on the scene. You may remember a few small backline stars like Christian Cullen, but they really had to work hard to generate those moments of magic.

‘Nowadays, the backline has more of a platform; they have more freedom to attack. The laws have brought the flair back to rugby, and that in turn has changed the mindset when it comes to selecting smaller players.

‘It’s very encouraging to see from a South African point of view. I was worried about the state of the game last year, but the tweak in the laws has meant that the counter-attack is once again a big part of rugby. It’s always been part of the New Zealand game, and perhaps South Africa has been a bit conservative in recent years. That has started to change.’

At 1.78m and 80kg, Paulse wasn’t much bigger than Aplon when he was playing for the Boks. He grew up playing against bigger opposition and it conditioned him for a rugby world where perception was as tough to beat as a Jonah Lomu or Joeli Vidiri. It was feared that Paulse’s size would inevitably count against him in close combat.

But in modern rugby there’s an appreciation for gifted players, and that appreciation isn’t limited by size. It’s not to say that somebody like Aplon hasn’t had to alter his approach, particularly on defence, to make the highest grade. Test rugby is still about dominance at the point of contact, and although the laws favour the attack, defenders still need to make their presence felt.

Many will remember the hit Botha made on Aplon in that Super 14 match between the Stormers and the Bulls, but so few recall Aplon’s own defensive contributions. Through working with Stormers and Western Province collision coach, Omar Mouneimne, Aplon has refined his tackling technique to the point where he’s not a defensive liability. With his mixed martial arts background, Mouneimne was able to teach Aplon to use his body weight to good effect.

‘Even though guys like Gio are smaller, they’ve got to get used to making the big hits,’ explains Mouneimne. ‘Smaller guys need to get under the bigger attacking players.  If you aren’t built like a freight train, you aren’t going to be able to smash back a bigger attacking player with a direct tackle.

A smaller defender needs to work hard to derail that freight train; to upend it by getting low and driving upward.

‘I did a lot of wrestling work with Gio and we worked on using his body weight to a specific end. He did a lot of power and strength work in the gym because wrestling techniques can only take you so far. You also need to have some power behind those hits.

‘We also worked on aggression. Smaller players have to be even more aggressive than others when competing for the ball at the breakdown. The law changes have also made it harder for them, because you can no longer ride the tackle back and then compete for the ball. You have to release the ball-carrier and show daylight.

‘Before, a smaller guy like Heinrich Brüssow would give away negative yards and ride the tackle because he knew he’d have a chance of turning over possession. Now with the new laws, you have to focus on getting a powerful first hit on the attacking player. You can’t give away negative yards, so smaller players have to be clever, and aggressive.’

Paulse agrees that attitude is as essential as technique.

‘Juan de Jongh and Aplon are always punching above their weight. I can relate. I grew up with the game, and my opponents were always bigger than me. When you persist with your rugby and make it to the highest level, fear is obviously not a factor because you’re used to the odds, but in your own mind you’re a rugby player like everybody else.

‘If you had to name some of the world’s best players, you’d be naming some of the smaller guys. Shane Williams has been fantastic for Wales over the years, and then you get the new players like Gio coming through. The standard of skill has improved and the game is played with a lot more flair, which suits the men who rely heavily on skill.

‘The small guys still do strength work in the gym to condition themselves for the big hits and contact, and having grown up with the game, there’s no fear. That’s why people shouldn’t be worried when the little guys get bashed around. They can handle it.’

If you’re tough enough, and you’re skilled enough, then size shouldn’t factor into selection. The top players who want for size have discovered a means of circumventing their defensive limitations, a facet that has so often been listed as a reason for match-day omission.

Rugby has changed, and as long as the lightweights are up to the defensive task, they should be included. Aplon, O’Connor and Dagg are just three who’ve thrilled with their counter-attacking efforts in 2010, and if the respective national coaches continue to show faith in these players, 2011 promises to be even better.

Paulse believes that with more effort from the coaching fraternity, South Africa can take the game to the next level. He believes that Super Rugby mentors need to tap into the talent in the Springbok Sevens side, as these players are already exceptional counter-attacking exponents.

‘Fabian Juries was such a legend in the sevens code, but his strengths have never really been properly utilised in 15s,’ he says. ‘Gio Aplon is an example of a guy who’s played sevens and is starting to make an impact. We need to be looking at how we can bring these guys through. Counter-attacking is a big part of sevens, so perhaps it will help if we start using more of these players in Super Rugby.’

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.