It doesn't matter whether it's in the boxing ring or on the rugby pitch, size truly matters
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:Ireland were left punch drunk as, like me, South Africa used their physicality to grind out a result
Around three months ago, I was approached by some people in England who were organising a testimonial event for Mark Cueto and Tom Shanklin. Part of the night they were planning was a series of boxing matches between former rugby players and they were wondering would I fancy getting involved. They’d provide a trainer for me at Raw Gym in Dublin, I’d get myself in shape and learn some basic skills and then on the night, I’d get into the ring for three rounds of boxing.
Ever since I finished up playing rugby, I’ve been trying to keep in some bit of shape but when you don’t have a target in mind, the whole thing can be very unsatisfying. You’re training away just for the sake of it. So almost straight away I said yes on the basis that this might be something interesting to aim at. The fact that it was going to be a boxing match was nearly irrelevant.
It didn’t stay that way for long. A few sessions in, I realised that I hadn’t actually felt pain for a long time. The bits and pieces of training I had been doing just to keep in shape had never got to the point where I was pushing myself beyond my limit. That’s the little reward you give yourself when you retire. You do a bit here and a bit there and you congratulate yourself for keeping at it even when you don’t have to. But when you get to the really hard bit, the bit you know is going to hurt like hell, retirement means you can just ease back and leave it at that for the day. You’re letting nobody down.
But this was different. After two sessions with my trainer in the gym in Dublin, I was in agony. He was beating medicine balls off my chest, fighting through a load of core work and foot work. I was wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into – and this was before I’d even thought about throwing or taking a punch. But gradually, I loved feeling the competitive edge again and I pushed myself into enjoying the experience.
That was important to me. Much as I liked the idea of working hard again, I didn’t want to go mad doing it. I didn’t want to be getting frustrated and annoyed at myself and above all, I didn’t want to do anything stupid when the fight itself came around. I didn’t want the red mist to descend or to drive myself cuckoo over it. I didn’t want to be hyped up over a boxing match that was supposed to be a bit of fun. I didn’t want to be getting hyper-aggressive or to be showing my mad side too much.
After a couple of opponents dropped out, I was left with Sean Long, a rugby league player and a good friend of mine. When it looked like I’d have no opponent, he rang and said he’d fight me. Sean’s only 85kg so I’d have a sizeable weight and reach advantage over him but he’s still playing away and he’s in great shape, chiselled, fit and very fast. Even though he reckoned his speed would have me in trouble, I felt a lot happier going in against him. It would be a bit of craic and there’d be no chance of me losing control.
The fight was in London last week. Steve Collins was the referee on the night and he told us to remember that it was a bit of fun. Nobody wanted to get hurt so if you were getting the upper hand on your opponent, you weren’t to pummel them. That totally suited my mentality and I was sort of laughing and joking a bit in the ring beforehand with Sean. I was getting a feeling that he was maybe feeling a small bit nervous about the size difference because I had about 25kg on him.
So I said, “We’ll just get our hands up here and have a bit of fun, take our time and throw a few jabs.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s perfect.” And then as soon as the bell went he came out and went after me as if his life depended on it! For the first 30 seconds, he was trying to knock me out with every single punch he threw. All my focus went immediately. People said to me afterwards that they were laughing because they saw my face go from all smiley and jokey at the start to all serious after the first few exchanges. It wasn’t that I was annoyed, more that I realised I better get stuck in here or I’ll be in trouble.
I started swinging wildly and I was a bit all over the place. He was really serious about it but I was having to adjust my attitude in the middle of the round. He definitely won the first round but once I got myself in order before the second, the size difference started to tell. I got back to using my reach and my height and weight got the better of him.
I had him on the ropes a few times but I pulled back and let him away with his early indiscretions. The red mist didn’t come down, even after Steve Collins called it a draw. To my mind, I was a convincing winner but maybe those early exchanges cost me.
In the end, my size and weight told. I got back to Ireland and went to watch the South Africa match on the weekend, where pretty much the same thing happened. The longer the match went on, the more South Africa’s superior physicality counted. They were the bigger team and they used their size to grind out the win.
It doesn’t always work that way in rugby but if the bigger team is smart and if it uses its size properly, it will win most of the time. When you’re continually running at very big guys, when you’re getting tackled by them and mauled by them, it takes a huge amount out of your legs. When you’re not able to break the gainline, you don’t make any ground. Not only does that sap your energy, it saps your will.
There’s very little as frustrating on a rugby field than having the ball and not being able to do anything with it. Ireland actually had 60 per cent possession over the course of the game. For South Africa to win with only 40 per cent of the ball, they had to dominate the physical exchanges. It’s the only way they could win – make sure that Ireland spent a lot of time going nowhere with what possession they had and then punish them when they turned the ball over.
That’s what it means to use your physical dominance in a rugby match.
Ireland came at South Africa in the first half in the same way as Sean Long came at me. They went in at half-time 12-3 up but they needed the next score to put South Africa away. They needed to land a big punch but they didn’t manage it or come close to it.
They came up against a side that was physically dominant and that had a really solid defensive structure. They were banging their head against a brick wall trying to get over the gain line. They were having to commit a third and fourth man to each ruck in order to protect the ball. Eventually that adds up to a shortage of runners and a man getting isolated and the ball being turned over.
Physical dominance doesn’t mean intimidation, it means turning the collisions your way bit by bit until you eventually either force a turnover or win a penalty from the referee. And combatting it isn’t just about fronting up and not being bullied – you won’t find too many international rugby players who’ll step back from a fight. Sometimes you just get overwhelmed by the amount of big, physical hits you take. All the courage and determination in the world won’t get the job done late on in a game against a team that is using its physical advantage properly against you.
Ireland did a lot that was good on Saturday and a lot of the new guys played very well. But in the end, they were just overpowered by the sheer size and physicality of the bigger team. If Sean Long was watching, I’d say he could relate to it.
Mind you if he reads this, he’ll probably want a rematch.