Size doesn’t matter to Rassie

Angus Opperman

Through our history in South African Rugby, especially in the modern era, players with flair, immense skill and X Factor have been overlooked due to their stature and lack of physicality.

Coaches have been reluctant to give these type of players a shot at Test level and many times have done so due to public pressure when that smaller player outplayed bigger counterparts at provincial or franchise level. Some excelled and some didn’t, but if Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has taught us anything since 2018, it’s that size clearly doesn’t matter to him.

One “survivor” that comes to mind is Breyton Paulse who racked up 64 Test caps between 1999 and 2007, and then there are guys like Gio Aplon who seldom disappointed in a Springbok jersey, but only got 17 Test caps.

Aplon is good under the high ball, can manipulate defences and tear them apart out of nowhere but he never got enough opportunities under Peter de Villiers, and Heyneke Meyer had him on the fringes after his last Test against England in 2012.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see players like Kwagga Smith (1.8m, 95kg) and Cheslin Kolbe (1.71m and 75kg) – regarded as first-choice players to front the All Blacks in New Zealand – and Herschel Jantjies (1.67m, 75kg) repaying the faith of their coaches with outstanding performances.

These are guys with a work-rate and fitness level that can carry on for the full 80 minutes. Sure, size helps when a huge Fijian winger runs at full speed at anyone, whether that opposing player weighs 80kg’s or 120kg’s the chances are they’ll get bumped anyway. A big thing is made of a smaller player’s size when they are sent flying in contact, but how often does that even happen?

This weekend we saw Cheslin Kolbe made 12 tackles and only missed two, and some of those tackles were against Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane.

Smith won two turnovers and Herschel Jantjies hasn’t put a foot wrong in two Tests and scored the try, which Pollard converted, to give the Boks a 16-16 draw in Wellington against the world’s best team.

I think it’s safe to say that we are past the obsession with size over talent. With proper conditioning, and sheer grit and determination, players of all sizes have squashed the narrative that size matters when it comes to Test rugby.

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- Angus Opperman

Let's chat

  • Barry

    We’ve just had this debate, do we really need to do it again? You surely know Wesley needs no encouragement!

    • Wesley

      The author here, and the performances of those smaller players in a team effort have done all the talking on the field for me, thanks Barry :p

  • John Comyn

    It does matter but, in some cases (the 3 players you mention), lack of size is off-set by skills/xfactor. One of the problems is when the Kolbe’s of the world get caught with ball it almost always ends up in turnover ball. Small guys are easy to put to the ground while a bigger guy can stay on his feet longer giving the support time to get there. Kolbe is one of the bravest rugby players I have ever seen. It does not take away from the fact, when he played Super Rugby, he was also dispossessed frequently and steamrolled close to his try line often. It was still worth having him in the side because he scored tries and created scoring opportunities. A big Kolbe would be the perfect winger:-)

    • chris

      Turnovers from tackles has very little to do with the size of player getting tackled. Its about the skill of the tackler/stealer and the lack of a good cleanout by the supporting player.

      Outside backs often end up on the ground without a supporting cleanout player, because of where they play.
      120 Kg props gets balls stolen of them or give away penalties on the ground all the time.
      Holding by Koch last year gave away the penalty that Muanga put out 5m from our line last year. That led to the try in the end.

      • John Comyn

        Thanks for enlightening me. I had no idea props and players other than the small okes ever got ball turned over! I am talking about outside backs who are at a disadvantage and more likely to be turned over (if isolated) because the bigger backs are likely to stay on their feet longer. It was a problem The Stormers with Kolbe and other smaller wings and FB’s they kept selecting. There is also the small matter of defending cross kicks against giant wings.

        • Chris

          Tall players like those giant Fijian wings are badly suited for stealing ball. Just as likely to concede a penalty by falling over the player. Actually, a short wing has a much better chance of winning a penalty like that against a big guy on the ground. Notice how the best ball poaching flanks are all shorties.
          Plenty of times this has played out.

          Has nothing to do with size. Thats why its not really a problem to have small nr.9’s, because they have cleaners close to them. If a big guy is on the ground he’ll concede a penalty or turn the ball over if he has no cleanout support, period.
          We see it happen all the time. Don’t see how his size helps him in that situation. What’s your height if your lying on your side ?

        • Dean Bright

          They get isolated on the outside because there is often no support out there. It’s nothing to do with size, it’s support play. The weekends game, Kolbe beat Ioane in the air. It’s a myth that small players are at a disadvantage. James Small, Breyton Paulse and Christian Cullen debunked those myths. They were brilliant all round players. You had no idea bigger players get turned over? Lol pay attention next time you watch a game of rugby. There were enough balls stolen on the weekend, go watch who was losing them.

          • John Comyn

            I disagree – sure one or two small guys in the back 3 providing they are outstanding (Kolbe, Cullen) and James Small was never a lightweight. May I suggest you look at top wings world wide. Most are big boys! Oh and my statement “Thanks for enlightening me. I had no idea props and players other than the small okes ever got ball turned over!” was me being sarcastic. Next time I will make it simple so even you can understand.

    • Wesley

      A big Kolbe does not exist in this world. Might as well say it would be nice to have Superman or The Hulk. All fantasy….

  • Wesley

    In a team effort with a proper defensive structure in place should avoid having one on one wing on wing situation on the tryline. Thats just poor defensive management, more a team failing than one player’s fault. Even the biggest defenders out wide would be bested 8/10 times, as you are defending on the backfoot, and would get stepped or bumped either way. I suggest our fellow readers look at the article on 365 from Ben Smith of Rugbypass on how the Boks countered this.

    • Barry

      No one-on-one wings you say. So the fundamental strategy of backline rugby just changed, apparently!

      The concept of “creating space out wide”, sadly no longer with us, apparently!

      The mere fact that the Boks had a counter action plan in place to deal with the miss match, is kind of acknowledging that the problem and concern exists in the first instance!

      John has set it out quite nicely it is simply weighing up attacking capability with defensive vulnerability and finding reasonable balance between the two. Erasmus should be applauded for trying it!

      • Wesley

        And one on one out wide is for the attack to try and create, not for the defense to give to you on a platter. So if your fundamental defensive gameplan is to allow for one on one tackling out wide in the modern game of rugby, then you are seriously flawed and outdated.

      • Wesley

        The “problem” may exist as you say, but then you explain the solution in the end as John has. So whats the complaints then about? All teams have exploitable weaknesses they need to deal with, and with Kolbe and such wings we have more firepower than holes to fill.

  • Herman

    My wife also says so. Cheers.

    • Barry

      I am sorry for your misfortune. Lol

  • John Comyn

    Hermie – was she referring to you or Rassie ?

  • Stifler

    Size should not matter when it comes to backline players, and NZ have proven this on several occasions when they’ve played guys like Dmac, Aaron Cruden etc. Some players can ignite a backline like no other. Someone like Cheslin Kolbe can make something out of absolutely nothing. Our last try was a result of him speeding down the right and doing a “chip-kick” that resulted in a opportunistic try by HJ.

    When it comes to the forward pack, you might have a few people with very different opinions. If we look at the English side that won the WC in 03, they had a flanker that played one of the most important roles in that pack – Neil Back.
    Height: 1,78 m
    Weight: 93 kg
    “Despite impressive performances between 1990 and 1995, he was not selected for England regularly, picking up only 7 caps during this period, on the basis that he was considered too small by some selectors, at only 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in) and 93 kg (205 lb; 14.6 st).”

    However in 07 Jake White only believed that a big, solid pack of forwards would be able to do the job, and so they did. Rugby will forever evolve, one day your’re too big, another you’re too small, and in 2019, if you’re a forward, you need have the skills of a backline player to be considered a good player, just ask the likes of Brodie Retallick.

    I’m excited to see what else Cheslin can bring to our team, got a heart of a lion, that’s for sure

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