A game for all shapes and sizes?

This was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com, 21 February 2010

One of the hallowed shibboleths of rugby union is that it is 'a game for all shapes and sizes'. Indeed, this is often held up as a positive distinguishing feature from league.

In reality, this was usually a euphemism for justifying the inclusion of unfit fat blokes in the scrum and failed basketball players in the line-out. But, as soccer writer Harry Pearson pointed out recently in the Guardian, the view that union today is a game for all shapes and sizes bears no relation to reality.

To demonstrate that it is indeed a myth, let’s compare the heights and weights of the England league and union teams that played against the Kangaroos and the Wallabies in November 2009, in the Four Nations final and at Twickenham respectively.

Both were fairly typical of the type of sides which the RFL and RFU have fielded in modern times and so offer good examples to test the idea that union is ‘a game for shapes and sizes’ when compared to league.

When we look at the England league side, the heights of players rise from five feet, six inches (Kyle Eastmond) to six feet, five inches (Jamie Peacock and Sam Burgess), a range of eleven inches.

In contrast, the heights of the England union side start at five feet, eight inches (Danny Care) and go to six feet, seven inches (Matt Banahan), exactly the same range of eleven inches. There was precisely no difference in the range of heights between the two squads.

Six of the 17 England RL players measured exactly six feet tall or less, whereas seven out of the twenty-two England RU squad were six feet or less, a statistically insignificant difference.

The average height of the league backs was five feet, eleven inches, whereas the average height of their union counterparts was six feet exactly, although one could argue that winger Matt Banahan’s six feet, seven inches exaggerated the union average.

The league forwards averaged six feet, two and a half inches, whereas the union forwards measured six feet, three and a third inches.

In terms of height, there is practically no difference between league players and union players, and certainly no evidence to support the ‘all shapes’ mythology.

But what about size and weight?

In terms of weight, the league backs range from eleven stones, eleven pounds (Eastmond again) to fourteen stones, ten pounds (Shaun Briscoe), a range of two stones, eleven pounds. Their average weight was thirteen stones, two and a half pounds.

The union backs ranged from twelve stones, two pounds (Paul Hodgson) to Banahan’s eighteen stones and one pound, a range of five stones, thirteen pounds. Even if we leave Banahan out, the range would be five stones and two pounds, thanks to Ayoola Erinle’s seventeen stone, four pounds frame. Their average weight was fourteen stones and ten pounds.

The league forwards started at thirteen stones and seven pounds (James Roby) and rose to nineteen stones and one pound (Eorl Crabtree), a range of five stones and eight pounds.

In contrast, the weights of the union forwards went from sixteen stones and three pounds (Lewis Moody) to nineteen stones and ten pounds (Duncan Bell), a range of three stones and seven pounds. In this case the range of weight was greater in the league pack.

However, they were considerably lighter. The league pack averaged fifteen stones and eight pounds, while the union forwards weighed in at seventeen stones and ten pounds. In short, there’s a greater range of weights among the league forwards but the union forwards are considerably heavier.

On the basis of this evidence, there is absolutely no truth in the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’.

In fact, there’s marginally more variation in the England league team, but this could easily disappear depending on selections, for example if Leon Pryce was selected at stand-off or Eorl Crabtree was replaced by Gareth Carvell.

On the whole, the union players are slightly taller and somewhat heavier, but it is historically the case that privately-educated youths are physically bigger than their working-class counterparts (thirteen of the twenty-two union players went to private schools, none of the league players did).

Of course, the extra weight of the union forwards is essential for all the scrummaging work they put in, whereas the league forwards cannot afford to carry such bulk because of their involvement in running the ball.

It may be the case that the beanpole second-rower has died out in union since the legalisation of lifting in the line-out, reducing the variation within union sides, but I suspect that any variation has always been exaggerated, mainly by proselytising school teachers who tried to promote union ahead of soccer and league.

Like so many other myths about the game, the idea that rugby union is ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’ reflects not so much the reality of the game but they way its supporters wished it was. And like all of those fantasies, it collapses as soon as it comes out contact with reality.