Rugby enters its Godzilla phase but demolition derby won’t capture many neutral hearts

There is a balance to be struck, just as there was back in Jonah Lomu’s day

Two hundred years ago no one thought Charles Darwin would amount to much. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,” his father told his 16-year-old son, who went on to achieve global fame for his contribution to evolutionary biology. Which just goes to show how wrong even the most up-close predictions can be.

Maybe we should remember that as we assess the next stage in the evolution of rugby union. Because the temptation over the weekend was to gaze down from the press box at Twickenham and conclude that rugby is increasingly the survival of the biggest. If you want to beat a big man, pick a bigger one. On Friday night, as seven Springbok forward replacements simultaneously rumbled on to grind down a depleted New Zealand, the sport officially entered a new Godzilla phase.

As the earth shook and small children dived for cover, it also felt a touch unfair. The laws of the game do not specifically state the replacements’ bench must also feature some backs (plural) as well as forwards but perhaps, in future, they should. South Africa did send on a solitary three- quarter in Cobus Reinach, usually a scrumhalf, to play on the wing in the final quarter but a uniquely muscular statement had long since been made.

The following day, England endured a historic defeat against a Fiji team who, on occasions, made even the brilliant Boks look like featherweights. Their excellent captain, Waisea Nayacalevu, stands almost 6ft 5in tall and weighs 16 and a half stone. He plays in the centre alongside Semi Radradra, whose thigh circumference would cause even a seasoned Savile Row tailor to run screaming from the room. The “bruise brothers” were not the only reasons England lost but, by comparison, Max Malins, Jonny May, George Ford and Alex Mitchell looked like garden gnomes.


It leaves rugby union at yet another T-junction with the biggest – that word again – World Cup in history kicking off in Paris on Friday week. On the one hand it is blatantly obvious that serious strength and physicality will be fundamental for tournament success. On the other the last thing the sport needs in these brain‑health‑conscious days is too many bodies strewn across the turf as a result of collisions with giant Bok hip bones or Fijian knees.

There is a balance to be struck, just as there was back in Jonah Lomu’s day. When Lomu first emerged he was a phenomenon, not simply because he was huge but because he was unstoppably rapid, too. When he rampaged over England in the World Cup semi-final in Cape Town in 1995, it was carnage. As the fax sent by a New Zealand fan to the team hotel in Johannesburg put it: “Remember rugby is a team game – all 14 of you pass the ball to Jonah!”

As it happened the big man still could not quite steer the All Blacks to the Webb Ellis Cup but the game has not managed to unearth a similar figurehead since. Which is interesting because, physically speaking, there are Jonahs everywhere now. When Australia won the 1991 World Cup in England, the average weight of their starting backline was barely 13 stone apiece. On Saturday at Twickenham Fiji’s backline was more than two stone heavier per man.

No one is remotely saying these giants, per se, are bad for the sport. One of the joys of watching the Fijians is their forwards’ ability to run and handle like backs – and who could ever forget the freight-train genius of Rupeni Caucaunibuca at the 2003 World Cup? Those suggesting Fiji overcame England despite playing slightly below themselves are merely stating the truth. As and when Levani Botia and Josua Tuisova are back involved they will be even better.

But let’s be clear: the success or failure of this World Cup hinges on accommodating beauty and the big beasts. Watching France and Australia on Sunday, for example, the abiding memories were of the finishing of the quicksilver Gabin Villière and the inventive Damian Penaud, and the Napoleonic genius that is Antoine Dupont. France can be hellishly strong at close quarters but their counter-attacking game is heavenly.

It offers hope of some subtlety amid the beefcake. Neutrals should also look out for some other will‑o’‑the‑wisp types with the ability to illuminate the competition. Ange Capuozzo of Italy, Argentina’s Mateo Carreras and the Scotland wing Darcy Graham are just three examples; the Springbok wing Kurt-Lee Arendse is another. Will Jordan of New Zealand is taller but his anticipation and the subtlety of his running angles and footwork set him apart. Ditto Canan Moodie, South Africa’s newest bolt of lightning who is destined to be a stellar talent.

Add in outhalf conjurors such as Finn Russell, Argentina’s Santiago Carreras and, potentially, France’s Matthieu Jalibert and, hopefully, the big lads will not have it entirely their own way. For the game’s future viability the sport simply cannot afford to morph into a monster truck demolition derby. Just as American football needs eye-catching quarterbacks and wide receivers to entice new fans, so rugby has to recognise that rolling mauls and red cards are not the way to many neutral hearts.

So let the Rugby World Cup be full-on but also freewheeling. Kick by all means but kick to regather, as France do so well. Play at pace and even the most gigantic forwards will start wheezing. Showcase rugby as it should be played: as a game of light and shade. Because if there are too many one-dimensional, casualty-laden slugfests, major existential trouble will loom. Failing to evolve and adapt, as foretold by the underestimated Darwin, is a sure route to extinction. – Guardian