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David Davies Will Skelton is one player notable for his extraordinary size.
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'The argument that players will keep getting bigger in the future doesn’t hold up'
Simon Hick looks at a subject that’s becoming difficult to ignore — the sheer bulk of the beasts on show.

Updated at 18.25

THE HEIGHT AND weight of rugby players seems to be more of an obsession than ever during this year’s Six Nations, with Philippe Saint-André top of the list of admirers. If there’s a close call in selection, the bigger man gets the nod.

For fans and journalists, it’s becoming ever more difficult to ignore the sheer bulk of the beasts on show. Paul Kimmage (Sunday Independent) believes modern physiques may be proof that some players are taking performance-enhancing drugs. Andy McGeady, Gavin Cummiskey (The Irish Times), Michael Moynihan (The Examiner) and Sean Ingle (The Guardian) have also written articles dedicated solely to this topic.

This week, Mike Ross spoke about the challenges posed by the wrecking ball that is Uini Atonio, one of the heaviest men to ever play international rugby (6 ft 5 in and 24 stone). Mathieu Bastereaud (19 stone), Vincent Debaty (20 stone) and Romain Taofifénua (20 stone) will all grab our attention too. The France-Scotland game last weekend looked like a fight between two brothers, where the older one just sits on his younger, feistier sibling until he runs out of oxygen.

There were similar discussions ahead of the South Africa and Australia games last November, when Eben Etzebeth (6ft 9 inch and 20 stone) and Will Skelton (6ft 8 in and 21 stone) rolled into town.

It’s obvious that a gigantic player with half-decent coordination will be useful to any rugby team, but only within reason. The argument that players will keep getting bigger in the future doesn’t hold up. The disadvantages to excess bulk are numerous in attack and defence.

The real game-breakers for England last weekend, for example, were Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and Ben Youngs, men who thrive on those milliseconds afforded to players operating right on the gainline.

Britain Wales England Rugby AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

(England’s Jonathan Joseph, left, avoids a tackle by Wales’ Dan Biggar)

For Joseph’s game-breaking try, it was reflexes, instinct and footwork that made the difference. In fact, the last of those assets arguably has a bigger influence on the flow of an international rugby match than body weight. Not that the 5ft 11 inch Joseph is especially small, but what made him sparkle throughout was his ability to take each tackle on his own terms, irrespective of how tightly he was being marked, and to recycle the ball.

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That barely perceptible shift of weight from one foot to the other that makes fools of heavier men — it’s one of the few things that can’t be taught. Two of the most balanced runners of all time, Jason Robinson and Christian Cullen, almost never lost posession, because they were usually only half tackled, leaving time for their teammates to secure the next ruck.

To prove the overall point, you only have to look at Ireland’s two least effective ball carriers, Devin Toner and Mike Ross, who are also the two heaviest men in the starting XV.

The ideal situation, of course, is to combine size with footwork. You could pass the ball to Ma’a Nonu, Jamie Heaslip or George North in almost any situation and they would somehow gain ground for their team. It’s still a rare combination of attributes, and going on recent history, it looks like Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson may be about to join that elite club.

In fact, Henshaw was the only player against Italy, while the game was still tight, that was getting over the gainline. Against France, the game is unlikely to ever open up, and those final 20 minutes will be fascinating. Ireland’s lighter, more aerobically fit forwards such as Peter O’Mahony and Sean Cronin, will still be ducking and weaving, while the French sluggers will be rolled off the bench to deliver the knockout blow.

Saint-André showed in the final game of last year’s Six Nations that he can deliver more than one gameplan, but before and since, he has opted for tank warfare. Ireland will be hoping he sticks with his instincts on Saturday.

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