Rugby and the Theory of Evolution
I received an e-mail from Australia a couple of days ago. Sent by Charlotte Hunter on behalf of Weight Watchers Australia, or WW Australia as the are now known. She offered me access to some fascinating data collected by Weight Watchers for a project that they are busy with.
You can find out more about their research by following this link: https://www.weightwatchers.com/au/rwc-info
The data she sent me was right in line with some research of my own that had been edging towards an article in the lead up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Thanks Charlotte, and WW Australia (formerly Weight Watchers)!
In this article I have also used research data published by:
Department of Diabetes & Endocrinology, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London, UK;
Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolic Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, St. Mary’s Campus, London, UK;
Defence Medical Services, DMS Whittington, Lichfield, UK;
Department of Imaging, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London, UK;
and Researchers: Neil Hill, Sian Rilstone, Michael J Stacy, Dimitri Amiras, Stephen Chew, David Fkatman, and Nick S Oliver.
Further information was obtained from the Institute of Biomedical and Epidemiological Research for Sport (IRMES) at the French Institute of Sport (INSEP)
The Theory of Evolution
From a Rugby Player Perspective
Back in the mid-19thcentury, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace proposed the scientific theory of evolution, with the theory set out in detail in Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Since that time the very concept of evolution has been the subject of both scientific and theistic debate, centred in the main on the philosophical, social, and religious implications of evolution. Whilst most scientists accept the concept of evolutionary synthesis, the entire issue remains a contentious and divisive concept for many theists.
I have no intention of entering into the raging, and often acrimonious debate between scientists, theistic evolutionists, and creationists. This is an article about rugby and rugby players.
I will leave the creation-evolution controversy to others to debate with as much rancour and fervour as they care to muster.
However, I do want to talk about the evolution of our game, both from a playing perspective and from the perspective of the players’ physique.
From the playing perspective we have seen innumerable changes to the Laws, the interpretation of the Laws, and the way the game is played out on the field. There have been many changes, and they continue on what seems to be a daily basis. We shall deal with these things in another article.
Today I want to talk about the changes to the physique, focus, and physicality of the players. (I will use the word “weight” throughout, although some more scientifically inclined readers might prefer “body mass” or BMI or some other term.)
There is no doubt that rugby players are getting bigger, heavier, and immensely more muscular as time passes.
In a long term exercise, New Zealand Rugby had a look at the average development of their outside backs, the wings and fullbacks, over a period of 40 years. Viewed at 10-year intervals over the four decades, the data shows that the average height and weight of the players has increased by 10 cm and 14 kilograms respectively.
In 1974 the average wing was 1,78m tall, and weighed 84kg.
By 2014 the wingers were averaging 1,88m tall and weighing in at 98kg.
If we move on 5 years to 2019 we are seeing wingers averaging 96kg, with a height of 1,89m.
In the 2019 All Black Rugby World Cup squad, Jordie Barrett is 1,96m tall and weighs 96kg. George Bridge is 1,86m tall and weighs 96kg, Reiko Ioane is 1,89m tall and weighs in at 102kg.
Sevu Reece is a relative midget at just 1,79m tall and weighing 87kg, but even at that relatively small size, the smallest of the New Zealand wingers is both taller and heavier than the average in 1974.
The New Zealand study is not an isolated view. Others have been actively researching the evolution of modern rugby players.
The findings are interesting across the entire range of players that make up a team.
If we look at prop forwards, back in 1987 the average weight was 108kg, and height at 1,82m – by 2007 the prop was weighing in at an average of 118kg, and by 2019 they are closer to 123kg.
Flankers have gone from 96kg and 1,82m at the 1987 Rugby World Cup to 113kg and 1,97m in height. Midfielders have grown from 87kg and 1,81m in 1987, to 103kg and 1,89m by 2019. Inside centres are larger than outside centres.
We have to add another little factoid, over the decades the body fat count of rugby players has reduced by an average of 5% for backline players, and 15% for forwards during the same period of time.
Professor Jean-Francois Toussaint, director of the Institute of Biomedical and Epidemiological Research for Sport (IRMES)at the French Institute of Sport (INSEP)has been involved in a number of scientific studies in recent years examining sporting physique.
He says: “The change has been dramatic in the last 20 years with large increases in all championships both in the southern and northern hemisphere,”adding “The increase in both forwards and backs has been around four to five centimetres over the past 20 years and an increase in 12 kilograms. It has been a large change,”
In the studies conducted by Prof Toussaint and his associates they have focussed on the changes that have happened since the advent of professionalism in 1995.
The increase in height and weight described by Prof Toussaint have coincided with the introduction of professionalism and have been found to be a determining factor in the success of a team.
In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012, Adrien Sedeaud (an associate of Prof Toussaint at INSEP) looked at the height and weight of more than 2,500 rugby players at six World Cups from 1987 to 2007.
What he found was that the teams which performed the best had the tallest backs and the heaviest forwards.
Without a doubt there are many other factors that contribute to a team’s success. Better coaching and team preparation, focussed planning and strategy development, better skills development, scientific nutrition, injury management, and a host of similar focus points, with the added benefit of greater collective experience amongst the player population whose entire focus is on rugby without having to hold down a working career at the same time.
These things all contribute, Sedeaud concluded — but it was notable that amid all the complexities of measuring performance that things like player weight and height were so obviously playing a prominent part.
This supersizing of sportsmen hasn’t been limited to rugby players, it’s evident in many other elite-level sports.
“These changes have both to do with the (rising) mean height of the population, but at the same time the knowledge of training, conditioning and the hours spent training and in recovery. Many of these things have played a small role in the changes,”Toussaint said.
There are some researchers that suggested that the increase in size amongst sports people could also be ascribed to the use of anabolic steroids. This may be true is some sports, but rugby has been relatively clean, with the incidence of positive tests very low in comparison with some other sports. In his study, Sedeaud points to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s 2009 annual report which identified 39 positive samples out of 5,725 tests done on professional rugby players around the world.
Interesting too, is that the research conducted by a host of different bodies has indicated that the upward curve in body height and weight has plateaued in many sports.
Whilst even non-contact sports like tennis and swimming also saw the same upward curve in recent decades, there are already signs that these growth spurts may be starting to tail off.
Prof Toussaint pointed out that “If you look at the U.S. baseball data from 1868 you see increases in both mass and height — but the height has stopped for the past 30-40 years,”
He added: “In American Football you see the same thing. Basketball is also the same — in the past 30 years the height of those players hasn’t changed.”
“On the other side, the mass (BMI) — which is a very strong parameter influencing the performance both in speed and inertia — is still increasing a little bit.”
But not in Rugby!
What is especially interesting for those of us interested in the game of rugby, is that our sport is bucking the trend – we are still seeing increasing height and weight across all positions on the field, and this has been particularly true since the advent of professionalism.
Impact of professionalism on body mass and height
A number of studies by diverse institutions and researchers have all come to similar conclusions. The weight of rugby players has increased significantly since 1995 when the game turned professional. This is in direct contrast to the four decades prior to 1995. (1955 to 1994).
The average weight of a player in 1955 was 84.8 kg.
By 2015 the average weight had increased by 24,3% to 105.4 kg.
Players in 2015 were, on average, heavier than players in 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985 and 1995.
In fact, in an exercise where over 500 international players’ measurements were considered it was found that in 1955 only one out of every 75 players weighed more than 100 kg .
By 2015, this had increased to 49 out of 75.
Interesting too that player height did not increase between 1955 and 1985 but then increased significantly from 1995 to 2015.
The average height of a player in 1955 was 1.80 m. By 2015 the average was 4,3% taller, at 1.88 m.
Interesting too is the fact that players in certain positions gained more weight than any of their team-mates.
This is particularly true of midfielders and hookers.
In 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985 and 1995, none of the centres playing international rugby weighed more than 100 kg; in 2005, one did; and in 2015 six of the centres weighed more than 100 kg.
Perhaps the most fascinating fact to emerge from the research is that midfielders have grown in weight to the point where they, on average, weigh almost as much as loose forwards in the modern era! (Loose forwards are still taller, though!)
Similarly, before professionalism (1955–1985), no hookers were heavier than 100 kg, in 1995 four, and in 2005 two hookers weighed more than 100 kg; in 2015 all the hookers weighed more than 100 kg.
Also, of interest is that while the weight of second row forwards has increased each decade since 1955, their height actually increased most in the period before professionalism between 1955 and 1995.
Just to finish this little analysis, rugby union players are significantly bigger, both in weight and height, to their counterparts in rugby league.
At another time we will look at how developments in the game itself have influenced the changes in the physique of rugby players – there are some fascinating facts to consider, such as the changes to the scrum laws.
In the bad old days a hooker was usually much smaller than his two props and he often used to hang between them and use both his feet to strike for the ball, both to win his own ball and also to try and hook a tighthead. That is why he is called a hooker!
Today he has become part of the 8-man shove technique to try and win the tighthead, and has thus bulked up to become a better scrummager.
This is for a different discussion.
(For those that are interested, there is a plethora of data and research reports that you can consult. I will happily provide the links to the various reports to those that want to do further reading.)
The Modern Era:
I often hear old men remeniscing about rugby and saying “Back in our day we would tackle him around the ankles…” or “we used to know how to scrum…” or even “we would never have let that happen on the field..”
They are welcome to their dreams and memories of yesteryear, but I do wonder how many would even think of playing the game today?
Rugby in the modern era is a vastly different game to that which was played in decades past.
If we think of the tackle, and how the science of the tackle has changed. Back in the 1970s when sports science started to become a profession, tackles were measured to have an average force of around 1,100Newtons. Today, the average tackle is measured at 1,700Newtons, while the bigger, dominant tackles are measured at over 3,000Newtons!
The average tackle today is the equivalent of having a household refrigerator dropped on you from 2m up in the air, while those really big hits are similar to being hit by a small car!
Imagine the cumulative effect of those hits on a player’s body and neurological system, if each player in the team must make just 10 tackles in a game, and also take 5 hits!
In the scrums the amount of force generated back in the 1970’s was around 12,500Newtons. Today the average scrum starts at around 13,500Newtons, and goes up to 16,000Newtons when a big pack of well-coordinated forwards get an 8-man shove going.
The average running speed of a rugby team in the 1970’s was just 13kph (Dragged down, of course, by the number of props that walked from scrum to scrum.) The modern game, despite the massive number of pile-ups we call rucks, sees players averaging 24kph, including those props!
Some of the quicker and more mobile players are averaging 35kph in a Test match!
Another measure worth considering is that players used to average around 5km of walking, jogging and, maybe, sprinting per game back in the 1970’s. Today the average is closer to 7km, and most of that is at a run, with scrumhalves and loose forwards doing anywhere between 9km and 11km.
In today’s professional world, a player needs to consume around 5500 calories per day as they train far more than players did back in the good old days. That is more than double the calorific intake of an average man.
Other measurements that are available today, but for which no statistics were kept in previous eras are that a prop forward in the gym must be able to bench press at least 1,5 times his own body weight. Consider that the average prop weighs in at 122 kg, that means they must bench press 183kg! They must be able to squat between 1,8 times and double their body weight!
Even the small guys, the wings, are expected to bench press 1,3 times their bodyweight and squat 1,5 times their own weight!
Back in the 1970’s props used to walk or jog a lot. Sprinting was a condition best left for the wings and other lunatics.
That has changed.
In the modern era a prop should do a 40m benchmark sprint in around 5,65 seconds.
The winger, the quick man, does the same distance in 5,2 seconds.
This is why we often see a big burly forward actually chasing down a backline player. The big guys have learned to sprint!
Times have changed, and so have rugby players.
The changes in size mentioned previously can be seen if we look at the teams that are participating in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Nowhere is this increase in size more evident than amongst the All Blacks. The average team height and weight went from 179.6cm and 84.4kg in 1947 to 186.5cm and 104.4kg in 2015.
Meanwhile, their props, increased in weight by an average of 28.1kg, from 93.5kg in 1947 to an average of 121,6kg in 2015.
Their 2019 props are Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 129kg; Atu Moli, 127kg; Nepo Laulala, 116kg; Angus Ta’avao, 124kg; and Joe Moody, the lightest of them all at 112kg.
Of interest. Brodie Retallick at 2,03m is their tallest player. (6ft 8in in the old imperial measurement.) Retallick weighs in at 121kg.
South Africa also field some of the biggest men in the game. Lood de Jager, at 2,05m is the tallest lock at this year’s Rugby World Cup. He weighs in at 125kg.
The South African props are: Frans Malherbe, 124kg; Steven Kitshoff, 120kg; Vincent Koch, 118kg; Trevor Nyakane, 118kg; and Tendai Mtawarira at 116kg.
Taniela Tupou of Australia and Tom Francis of Wales are the heaviest men at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, while the lightest forward for 2019 is South Africa’s Kwagga Smith at just 80kg..
The Heaviest Player In Each Team:
As we scan through the team lists looking for the heaviest payers in each team, we find:
Argentina: Tomas Lavanini, a lock forward at 130kg
Australia: Taniela Tupou, a prop at 135kg
Canada: Matt Tierney, a prop at 134kg
England: Billy Vunipola, a loose forward at 130kg
Fiji: Manasa Saulo, a prop at 128kg
France: Sébastien Vahaamahina, a lock forward at 126kg
Georgia: Kote Mikautadze, a lock forward at 130kg
Ireland: Tadhg Furlong, a prop at 126kg
Italy: Marco Riccioni, a prop at 126kg
Japan: Koo Ji-won, a prop at 122kg
Namibia: AJ de Klerk, a prop at 121kg
New Zealand: Ofa Tu’ungafasi, a prop 129kg
Russia: Two players weigh in at 121kg, prop Vladimir Podrezov, and lock Andrei Ostrikov
Samoa: Michael Alaalatoa, a prop at 132kg
Scotland: Zander Fagerson, a prop at 126kg
South Africa: Lood de Jager and RG Snyman, two locks, are both 125kg.
Tonga: Ben Tameifuna, a prop at 134kg
Uruguay: Juan Rombys, a prop at 118kg
USA: Titi Lamositele, a prop at 123kg
Wales: Tomas Francis, a prop at 135kg.
It is interesting to note that some of the smaller rugby countries tend to field noticeably lighter players. The two teams with the highest average weight amongst their forwards are Samoa and Australia, both averaging above 116kg.
The three lightest sets of forwards are from Russia, on available data averaging around 104,5kg, and Namibia and Uruguay both at 104,9kg.
Here are the forwards and their individual weights for each of the participating teams at the 2019 Rugby World Cup:
Argentina have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1928kg and an average of 113,4kg.
|Juan Manuel Leguizamon||Loose forward||104|
|Marcos Kremer||Loose Forward||115|
|Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro||Prop||121|
|Rodrigo Bruni||Loose Forward||109|
|Pablo Matera (c)||Loose Forward||109|
|Guido Petti Pagadizábal||Lock||108|
|Tomás Lezana||Loose Forward||105|
|Javier Ortega Desio||Loose Forward||102|
Australia have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1978kg and an average of 116,35kg.
|David Pocock||Loose Forward||115|
|Lukhan Salakaia-Loto||Loose Forward||123|
|Isi Naisarani||Loose Forward||110|
|Jack Dempsey||Loose Forward||108|
|Michael Hooper||Loose Forward||101|
Canada have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1922kg and an average of 113,71kg.
|Justin Blanchet||Loose Forward||112|
|Luke Campbell||Loose Forward||109|
|Evan Olmstead||Loose Forward||115|
|Lucas Rumball||Loose Forward||105|
England have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1962kg and an average of 115,4kg.
|Billy Vunipola||Loose Forward||130|
|Lewis Ludlam||Loose Forward||110|
|Sam Underhill||Loose Forward||103|
|Mark Wilson||Loose Forward||107|
|Tom Curry||Loose Forward||106|
Fiji have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1927kg and an average of 113,4kg.
|Viliame Mata||Loose Forward||116|
|Dominiko Waqaniburotu||Loose Forward||111|
|Peceli Yato||Loose Forward||108|
|Semi Kunatani||Loose Forward||100|
|Mosese Voka||Loose Forward||100|
France have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1928kg and an average of 113,4kg.
|Louis Picamoles||Loose Forward||116|
|Gregory Alldritt||Loose Forward||115|
|Charles Ollivon||Loose Forward||108|
|Bernard Le Roux||Loose Forward||116|
|Yacouba Camara||Loose Forward||102|
Georgia have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1922kg and an average of 113kg.
|Mamuka Gorgodze,||Loose Forward||118|
|Otar Giorgadze||Loose Forward||110|
|Beka Gorgadze||Loose Forward||106|
|Lasha Lomidze||Loose Forward||110|
|Beka Saghinadze||Loose Forward||105|
|Giorgi Tkhilaishvili||Loose Forward||103|
Ireland have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1919kg and an average of 112,9kg.
|CJ Stander||Loose Forward||114|
|Rhys Ruddock||Loose Forward||111|
|Jack Conan||Loose Forward||110|
|Peter O’Mahony||Loose Forward||107|
|Josh van der Flier||Loose Forward||104|
Italy have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1872kg and an average of 110,1kg.
|Sergio Parisse||Loose Forward||112|
|Sebastian Negri||Loose Forward||110|
|Braam Steyn||Loose Forward||110|
|Jake Polledri||Loose Forward||106|
|Maxime Mbanda||Loose Forward||102|
Japan have named 19 forwards for their home World Cup, with a gross weight of 2072kg and an average of 115,1kg.
|Pieter Labuschagne||Loose Forward||105|
|Wimpie van der Walt||Lock||110|
|Asaeli Ai Valu||Prop||108|
|Kazuki Himeno||Loose Forward||108|
|Hendrik Tui||Loose Forward||107|
|Michael Leitch||Loose Forward||103|
|Yoshitaka Tokunaga||Loose Forward||100|
|Amanaki Mafi||Loose Forward||112|
Namibia have taken 18 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1889kg and an average of 104,9Kg. Along with Russia and Uruguay, Namibia field one of the lightest forward contingents of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
|AJ de Klerk||Prop||121|
|Louis van der Westhuizen||Hooker||100|
|Torsten van Jaarsveld||Hooker||108|
|Johan Retief||Loose Forward||110|
|Prince ǃGaoseb||Loose Forward||98|
|Rohan Kitshoff||Loose Forward||98|
|Thomasau Forbes||Loose Forward||95|
|Adriaan Booysen||Loose Forward||93|
|Wian Conradie,||Loose Forward||105|
|P J van Lill||Loose Forward||112|
|Max Katjijeko||Loose Forward||86|
New Zealand have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1934kg and an average of 113,77kg.
|Sam Cane||Loose Forward||103|
|Luke Jacobson||Loose Forward||107|
|Kieran Read||Loose Forward||110|
|Matt Todd||Loose Forward||105|
|Ardie Savea||Loose Forward||95|
Russia have taken 19 forwards to Japan, The gross weight and average cannot be calculated as the data for a number of their forwards are not recorded, however, based on available data they appear to be the lightest of the teams at the World Cup..
|Victor Gresev||Loose Forward||98|
|Tagir Gadzhiev||Loose Forward||108|
|Anton Sychev||Loose Forward||???|
|Nikita Vavilin||Loose Forward||???|
|Vitaly Zhivatov||Loose Forward||98|
|Roman Khodin||Loose Forward||98|
Samoa have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1979kg and an average of 116,41.
|Afaesetiti Amosa||Loose Forward||112|
|Piula Faʻasalele||Loose Forward||120|
|Chris Vui||Loose Forward||120|
|TJ Ioane||Loose Forward||104|
|Jack Lam||Loose Forward||103|
Scotland have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1916kg and an average of 112,7kg.
|Jamie Ritchie||Loose Forward||108|
|Blade Thomson||Loose Forward||107|
|Ryan Wilson||Loose Forward||105|
|John Barclay||Loose Forward||102|
|Hamish Watson||Loose Forward||102|
South Africa have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1957kg and an average of 115,12kg. They feature the heaviest player at the 2019 Rugby World cup – Thomas du Toit at 136kg, and the lightest forward Kwagga Smith at just 80kg.
|Lood de Jager||Lock||125|
|Pieter-Steph du Toit||Loose Forward||120|
|Duane Vermeulen||Loose Forward||117|
|Francois Louw||Loose Forward||114|
|Siya Kolisi||Loose Forward||105|
|Kwagga Smith||Loose Forward||80|
Tonga have taken 18 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1943kg and an average of 114,3kg.
|Sione Kalamafoni||Loose Forward||121|
|Maama Vaipulu||Loose Forward||112|
|Daniel Faleafa||Loose Forward||108|
|Zane Kapeli||Loose Forward||103|
|Fotu Lokotui||Loose Forward||108|
|Nasi Manu||Loose Forward||118|
Uruguay have taken 17 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1784kg, and an average of 104,9kg – one of the lightest of the forward units taken to the World Cup.
|Alejandro Nieto||Loose Forward||108|
|Manuel Diana||Loose Forward||100|
|Juan Diego Ormaechea||Loose Forward||100|
|Juan Manuel Gaminara||Loose Forward||95|
|Franco Lamana||Loose Forward||100|
The USA have taken 18 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1911kg and an average of 112,41kg.
|Cam Dolan||Loose Forward||115|
|Tony Lamborn||Loose Forward||103|
|Ben Pinkelman||Loose Forward||93|
|Hanco Germishuys||Loose Forward||102|
|Malon Al-Jiboori||Loose Forward||100|
|John Quill||Loose Forward||100|
Wales have taken 18 forwards to Japan, with a gross weight of 1873kg and an average of 110,18kg.
|James Davies||Loose Forward||102|
|Aaron Shingler||Loose Forward||105|
|Alun Wyn Jones||Lock||108|
|Ross Moriarty||Loose Forward||106|
|Josh Navidi||Loose Forward||105|
|Aaron Wainwright||Loose Forward||105|
|Justin Tipuric||Loose Forward||102|
Rugby has become a game of behemoths battering away at each other with enormous power, physicality and aggression. Gargantuan forwards and huge backs smashing into each other has become the norm. The collisions have become massive, the scrums and mauls have become maelstroms of power and focus, while the forces generated by tackles have become something close to murderous.
The players have evolved, rapidly, in order to stay in touch with the requirements of the modern game. This has resulted in the breeding of a new generation of giants, vastly different to the players of past generations.
I, for one, am not sure that this is good for the game of rugby. The All Black coach from 1969 to 1971, Ivan Vodanovich,wrote in his book “Rugby Football the All Black way”that rugby was the game for everyone, tall or short, fat or thin, big or small, there was a position and a place in rugby for everyone. I am not so sure that he would be able to say that today.