Peter Stringer: Does size matter? It certainly did to me

Former Ireland scrumhalf says small stature always allowed him to stand out on pitch

 

At under-8s, -10s and -12s, I was always the smallest player. I never felt discriminated against because of my size, and I was always picked on the first team by the coach. But my parents suffered plenty of advice and questioning on the sidelines.

“Are you sure you should be allowing him to play rugby? The size of him!”

“Are you not being a little irresponsible letting him play?”

Out on the pitch, from under-8s up, I was oblivious to all of this.

I just went out on the pitch and played.

No one ever said to my face, “You’re too small”. But in later years Mum told me some of the stories. She recalled one specific under-13 game when Pres travelled to Dublin to play Blackrock College.

As I was captain of the team, I led them out, followed by one of the secondrows.

Some of the Blackrock mothers were on the sidelines. “Ah look, they brought a mascot out on the pitch.”

“No, no,” Mum said to them, “he’s actually the captain of the team.” That shut them up, but Mum constantly had other parents approaching her on the side of the pitch while I was playing, with comments like: “He’s too small” or “He’s going to get hurt” or “How can you stand by and watch him out there?”

Some were very strongly opinionated about it, and weren’t shy about questioning her responsibilities as a mother, or Dad’s as a father. It must have been difficult for them. At times they must have wondered: “Are we doing the right thing? Obviously he loves playing. Do we stop him playing?”

Things reached a head in my first year at Pres. Opponents and team-mates were developing, growing bigger, and I wasn’t keeping up with them. I was still very small.

Mum had spoken to her cousin, whose son was of similar size, and who had undertaken several tests. On foot of these, his parents decided to take him to hospital, where he was hooked up to drips for a procedure to administer growth hormones over a couple of days.

Apparently the results had been remarkable. Within a few months he’d grown by several inches and had bulked up.

So one evening Mum and Dad sat me down at home. “Look, we’ve talked to your cousin and he’s happier being bigger. How do you feel with regard to your size?”

“I feel okay. I feel fine.”

Operation

“Well look, we think there’s an operation that maybe you should have done,” said Mum. “Your cousin had this operation done, and they had great results. We’d just like you to see this specialist first, to check whether you’re growing okay, and that everything is normal.”

We went to this specialist, who lived in Douglas. She had a surgery next to her house, and she measured me and weighed me and tested me, before giving her analysis and opinion on what should be done. She recommended to Mum and Dad that I should go into hospital to undergo the same procedure as my distant cousin.

I remember standing at the bottom of our stairs as Mum and Dad read the letter which advised this procedure. “We’re going to look into booking you into the hospital.”

I was absolutely devastated. I felt good in myself, in my size. I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with me. I was entirely happy with the way I was and I didn’t want to change anything. I didn’t understand why I had to do it, but Mum said: “We think it will be good for you in the long run. It will give you a kick-start and help you compete with bigger boys.”

I said: “I don’t want to change anything. I just want to stay as I am.” Standing in the hallway, I was bawling. As I chatted to Mum and Dad I could see in their faces that this obviously was important to them. “Look, think about it,” they said. “Just think about it.”

Cried through the night

I ran upstairs to my bedroom on the top floor and threw myself on the bed. Although it was only seven or eight o’clock, I didn’t come downstairs for the rest of the night. I pretty much cried through the night. I didn’t want to go to hospital. I didn’t want to go through any procedure. I didn’t want drips attached to me. I didn’t understand the need for it or what it was, and the prospect scared me. The bottom line was, I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with me, and certainly not enough to merit a couple of nights in hospital. When I came down the next morning, Mum and Dad had obviously talked, and had reassessed things. “Look, if this is something that you don’t want to do, then that’s fine. We can look at it some other time if you don’t want to do it now.”

“I don’t ever want to do it,” I said. “We won’t be talking about this again. This is me and this is how I want to stay.”

I went to school exhausted, shattered even, but so relieved. I wanted to remain in control of my own body. I didn’t want to have others making decisions about my body and my growth. If I had been sick, that would have been a different matter. But I wasn’t. I think I floated through school that day, I was so delighted that I had persuaded my parents not to go ahead with this procedure, and I could resume my life. They meant well, and the barrage of criticism had backed them into a corner and made them question their own responsibilities as parents. But ultimately they listened to me more than to anyone else.

Not only could I have turned into a different person, it might have detracted from my game as a scrumhalf. Or I could have outgrown scrumhalf altogether and never been suited to another position, which would almost certainly have been the case.

No regrets. Who wants to be the same as everyone else, anyway? My size, and my stubbornness about not undergoing that procedure, make me prouder of my career. At the 2003 World Cup, I was the second-smallest player at the tournament. I wanted to be the smallest. There was one Japanese player listed as being shorter but heavier than me, and my listed weight was probably a few kilos higher than the reality, so who knows? But officially he was slightly smaller.

Under nine stone

I am 5’ 7”, and probably weigh 72kg, and I have never really varied from that as an adult. When I was on the Irish schools tour to Australia in 1996, I weighed in at just under nine stone (57kg). One of the Irish locks on that tour, Bob Casey, was not far off the size he was in his senior playing days (123kg/19st 4lb).

I am sure I am not alone in never having tasted alcohol, I’ve never taken a drag of a cigarette, and I’ve never taken an illegal substance to help make me bigger. To be honest, I’ve never heard of illegal drugs being taken by players in Ireland, although I have heard of it happening in one or two other countries. A few names have been mentioned, but I have genuinely never heard of it in Ireland. If a player is injured for a lengthy spell and comes back, say, six or nine months later, noticeably bigger, that can be a telltale sign that he’s taken growth hormones or steroids. No one can ever accuse me of that!

My size is a major part of who I am, maybe it even defines me as a rugby player. I suppose little guys can stand out from the crowd too, and my size has appealed to the maternal instincts of grandmothers and mothers and has contributed to their affection for me. To this day, that is still the case. I received a letter once from a ninety-year-old woman, in which she wrote of how inspiring my career had been.

I think kids also identify with me, as a little guy competing among big guys. Maybe it gives them hope that they can play rugby too. Even Eliya, my wife Debbie’s niece, who is only three, already has a different relationship with me compared with anyone else. Because I have no hair, she also thinks I am a big baby, a big version of her! For the first two and a half years of her life, she did not have a hair on her head. Ciara, her mum, would always say: “Ah look, Eliya and Peter are the same; no hair.” And Eliya latched on to that and identifies with me when she watches me play matches.

Kids generally identify with the smaller guys in rugby. Shy kids, of around 10 or 11, come to me after games and say: “Have you any tips for me? I’m a really small scrumhalf as well, and what advice would you give me?”

Attainable

I suppose I’m also seen as being more approachable because I’m small. They maybe think: “He’s just a normal person, doing what I’d like to do. He’s not a 6’ 7” giant.” In their minds, it probably makes a career in rugby seem more attainable.

The game has changed completely since I started playing, 30-odd years ago, and especially since I moved into senior rugby almost 20 years ago. It’s much more of a collision-based sport, and players have got significantly bigger.

As my career has progressed, I have sometimes found myself discarded at the expense of bigger scrumhalves. There’s been an increasing perception that teams need bigger scrumhalves to play behind bigger packs. But if you’re good enough, you’re big enough, and there’s definitely a place for small players in the game – especially at scrumhalf.

In a specialist position like scrumhalf you have a certain job to do. Throughout my career, my role has always been to be there quickly, be a distributor, read a game well and put guys into space. I see myself as a facilitator rather than the one who finishes moves.

It suits my body type and it suits my personality. If I had undergone that procedure, I would never have achieved what I have done in my rugby career. It would have made me three or four inches taller, and I would then have blended in with everyone else.

I’d have been a bigger man with a smaller career.

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