Kiwis’ giants show why size matters

Hulking New Zealand outside backs continue to out-muscle and out-leap their smaller South African counterparts, writes JON CARDINELLI.

New Zealand rugby continues to dominate in the Super Rugby tournament. Eleven rounds into the 2017 instalment, and the Kiwi collective has racked up 17-straight wins against Australian opposition, as well as nine victories in 10 matches against South African teams.

Right now, everyone is talking about the gap that exists between New Zealand rugby and the chasing pack. Many are pondering the question: What's it going to take to close it?

New Zealand made a significant tactical shift in late 2009. They addressed their weakness at the lineout as well as their kicking and aerial shortcomings. They went on to dominate the game at both Super Rugby and Test levels, using an improved approach to claim two World Cups, five Rugby Championships, and four Super Rugby titles between 2010 and 2016.

The All Blacks adopted the approach utilised by the Springboks during that golden era for South African rugby between 2007 and 2009. In the ensuing years, New Zealand built on and eventually perfected what is essentially a pragmatic strategy.

Eight years after New Zealand’s tactical shift, and teams like the Hurricanes and Highlanders are leading the way in terms of attacking and contestable kicks. Sides like the Crusaders are thriving behind a set piece that never seems to get enough credit for the part it plays in creating try-scoring chances.

The Kiwi teams have continued to focus on winning the collisions and thus laying the platform for their players to score tries and win games. They boast the most physical players on the planet, not only in the narrow channels, but out wide as well.

Of course, it has been plain to see that the selection of larger players has aided them in their quest to win the gainline battle as well as the contest in the air. Take a look at the comparisons in size between South African and New Zealand outside backs on show in round 11.

JORDIE BARRETT (96kg, 1.95m) vs SP MARAIS (80kg, 1.84m) = Difference of 16kg and 11cm
CORY JANE (89kg, 1.83cm) vs DILLYN LEYDS (88kg, 1.83m) = Difference of 1kg, 0cm
JULIAN SAVEA (108kg, 1.92m) vs CHESLIN KOLBE (80kg, 1.68m) = Difference of 28kg, 24cm

CLAYTON BLOMMETJIES (87kg, 1.83m) vs MATT FADDES (94 kg, 1.85m) = Difference of 7kg, 2cm
SERGEAL PETERSEN (82kg 1.71m) vs PATRICK OSBORNE (105kg, 1.89m) = Difference of 22kg, 18cm
RAYMOND RHULE (86kg, 1.80m) vs WAISAKE NAHOLO (96kg, 1.86m) = Difference of 10kg, 6cm

WARRICK GELANT (89kg, 1.80m) vs DAVID HAVILI (95kg, 1.84m) = Difference of 6kg, 4cm
TRAVIS ISMAIEL (88kg 1.83m) vs GEORGE BRIDGE (95kg, 1.85m) = Difference of 7kg, 2cm
JAMBA ULENGO (100kg 1.87m) vs SETA TAMANIVALU (104kg, 2cm) = Difference of 4kg, 2cm

In Wellington on Friday, the 108kg Julian Savea took a kick-pass from Beauden Barrett, unopposed, and then ran over the 80kg Cheslin Kolbe as if the Stormers winger wasn’t even there. A lot’s been said about this incident, and indeed many similar incidents in which giant Kiwi backs have flattened their smaller South African opponents.

On that occasion, Kolbe (1.68m) was never going to beat Savea (1.92m) in the air. Kolbe was always going to struggle to stop a man some 28kg heavier with a head-on tackle.

Is it fair to criticise Kolbe, or should the criticism rather be aimed at coaches who pick smaller players in these positions? The game has changed, and you can no longer afford to pick a player who gives away such a significant height and weight advantage in a match where the gainline and aerial battles are sure to influence the result.

To say it's a mismatch is an understatement. Unfortunately, these mismatches have become commonplace in a tournament where New Zealand wingers and fullbacks tower over their South African counterparts.

In fact, in the matches played between South African and New Zealand sides in round 11, not one South African outside back was heavier or taller than his direct opponent (see the tables above).

The limitations of the Cheetahs back three were patent in the recent loss to the Highlanders. Patrick Osborne smashed through his direct opponent, Sergeal Petersen, on more than one occasion, while Waisake Naholo came into the contest in the second half with two important tries. Clayton Blommetjies, the diminutive Cheetahs No 15, won't want to watch the replay in which he was brushed aside by Highlanders flyhalf Marty Banks at the gainline.

Success against the embattled Australian franchises is no measure of strength or progress in 2017. The Lions are being talked up as potential winners of this year’s competition, which is premature, considering they haven’t faced a New Zealand side since the final against the Hurricanes last year.

That said, the Lions still represent South Africa’s best chance of a title in 2017. They have played the most balanced brand of rugby, and they have, where possible, made selections geared towards winning the battles at the collisions and in the air.

As seen in the table below, at least two members of their back three are in the 90kg category. The Lions should be further boosted by the return of Ruan Combrinck (99kg, 1.83m) in the coming weeks. In 2016, Combrinck was one of South Africa's standouts in contact and under the high ball.

James Lowe (Chiefs): 104kg, 1.87m
Rieko Ioane (Blues): 103kg, 1.88m
Michael Collins (Blues): 99kg, 1.86m
Toni Pulu (Chiefs): 96kg,1.85m
Sibusiso Nkosi (Sharks): 96kg, 1.82m
Matt Duffie (Blues): 95kg, 1.92m
Andries Coetzee (Lions): 95kg, 1.83m
Kobus van Wyk (Sharks): 94kg, 1.90m
Courtnall Skosan (Lions): 90kg, 1.84m
Sylvian Mahuza (Lions): 85kg, 1.79m
Rhyno Smith (Sharks): 81kg, 1.73m
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs): 80kg, 1.75m

Overall, South Africa is battling to match the standard set by New Zealand. The average size of a New Zealand winger competing in round 11 was 99.5kg and 1.88m, while the average size of a Kiwi fullback was 92.8kg and 1.85m. Meanwhile, the average South African winger was 88.9kg and 1.80m, and the average South African fullback was 86.4kg and 1.81m.

New Zealand wingers had more than 10kg and 8cm on their South African opponents. Kiwi fullbacks were more than 6kg heavier and 4cm taller.

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee made a telling admission at a press conference staged in Stellenbosch last month. Coetzee made it clear that the Boks – in losing eight out of 12 Tests in 2016 – underperformed in the departments of tactical kicking and aerial contesting, as well as at the breakdown and on defence.

Coetzee called for an improvement ahead of the three-Test series against France in June. He made mention of France’s powerful outside backs and gave one the impression that he would select players with the ability and the size to combat that threat.

The Boks can’t afford to go into that series – and indeed, into the Rugby Championship that follows – without players who can win the battles at the gainline and in the air. Based on what we've seen, outside backs weighing in at around 85kg and standing at 1.80m generally struggle to compete in these disciplines at the elite levels.

There’s a reason why All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has invested in big players at the back rather than players of Damian McKenzie’s stature (80kg, 1.75m). Granted, Ben Smith is not the biggest player in the world by modern standards at 93kg, but his height (1.86m) does factor into his ability to win contestable kicks for his side.

Many have gushed over Jordie Barrett’s impact as a distributor and ball-carrier, but the fact remains that at 1.95m and 96kg he is one of the biggest fullbacks around (and could become even heavier in future, considering he's 20 years old at present and may have more growing to do). This past Friday, we witnessed the Hurricanes No 15 using his size and power to rip the ball off Stormers No 8 Nizaam Carr and score a try.

While South Africa does have some big wingers and fullbacks competing in Super Rugby, some even with the skill-set to challenge Smith and co at Test level, it does not boast as many as New Zealand. South Africa needs to produce more JP Pietersens and Combrincks and ensure that youngsters boasting the necessary bulk and athleticism –  like Kobus van Wyk, Jamba Ulengo, Andries Coetzee and Makazole Mapimpi – are developed as tactical-kicking and aerial threats.

There should be a drive to close the gap between South Africa and New Zealand in this respect, as well as an admisson that size does matter at the highest level.

Wandile Mjekevu (99kg, 1.91m)
Makazole Mapimpi (90kg, 1.84m)
Masixole Banda (75kg, 1.72m)

All players statistics courtesy of the official 2017 Super Rugby media guide

Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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