With the British and Irish Lions squad officially announced, the Lions tour of South Africa feels a lot more real.
As a South African sportswriter who spent his childhood watching the Springboks bully teams with their physicality and size, the ongoing idea that all South Africa sides are a series of big men seems to ignore the evolution not only of the current world champions, but of the rest of the world, too.
Now that I am covering the sport in Ireland, the myth of South African giantism has become even more apparent and I believe it is time to set the record straight.
Warren Gatland’s selections have, as expected, raised a lot of questions, and pointed towards a potential gameplan that he will hope to utilise against the world champions.
He suggested that a number of the selections that he made were done so in order to front up to South Africa physically, suggesting a presumption of a large, physical South African pack.
However, in recent years, it seems that South Africa’s pack have either been caught up to, or otherwise become smaller, as the data suggests that they are not bigger than their international opponents.
Springboks the lighter in their recent World Cup final
With the Springboks unlikely to change too much from their World Cup final squad for the Lions tests, barring injuries, it is worth analysing South Africa’s pack size.
The belief that South Africa is full of big men has been carried over from the days of amateur rugby and early professionalism, where the Springboks often had a good number of kilograms over their opposition in terms of their total pack weight.
However, this narrative does not hold true in the modern game, as in their last test match, which was the World Cup final. According to stats taken from both the South African and English rugby unions, the England starting pack was 12kg heavier than the South Africans.
While it is true that the bulk of South Africa’s weight came from their towering locks Eben Etzebeth (203cm, 123kg) and Lood de Jager (206cm, 125kg), as well as Frans Malherbe (190cm, 124kg), in every other position in the forwards, the English outweighed their counterparts.
Most notably, Billy Vunipola tipped the scales in his favour with a 131kg build, while the powerful Duane Vermeulen was comparatively svelte at just 116kg. Despite giving up almost 15kg in difference, Vermeulen was the dominant force on the day.
South African pack compared to other countries
While England managed to outweigh South Africa the last time the two met, that does not necessarily mean that South Africa are no longer the big men in international rugby.
However, looking through the international sides in the last couple of test matches, there is evidence that South Africa are the ones looking to be on the lighter side, along with New Zealand.
New Zealand have heavy props, with three of their most recent starting and reserve props coming in at just over 120kg each:
- Joe Moody (188cm, 120kg)
- Tyrel Lomax (192cm, 127kg)
- Patrick Tuipulotu (198cm, 120kg)
However, aside from the front row, the Kiwis are looking a much leaner side than history would suggest, with the majority of their most recent starting eight sitting just over 105kg. Even the physical and destructive Kieran Read barely tipped the scales over 110kg.
In fact, the big men on the international stage now seem to be France, with Australia fronting up some large men recently as well.
French prop Uini Atonio, who recently helped dismantle Leinster for La Rochelle, tips the scales at a massive 145kg, standing over 196cm.
Other French big men:
- Mohamed Haouas (185cm, 123kg)
- Romain Taofifenua (200cm, 120kg)
- Paul Willemse (201cm, 129kg)
Similarly, former Australian international Will Skelton (203cm, 125kg) added to Leinster's woes on Sunday.
Other Australian big men:
- Scott Sio (187cm, 115kg)
- Brandon Paenga-Amosa (183cm, 117kg)
- Allan Alaalatoa (182cm, 120kg)
- Rob Simmonds (200cm, 115kg)
- Matthew Philip (199cm, 115kg)
Lions heavyweights and lightweights
While other international setups have brought in the big guns recently, Gatland has traditionally favoured size.
Although the average height and weight of the Lions forwards is not over the average of the French or Australian sides from their recent competitions, what can be worked out is that the Lions do measure up to some degree to the Springboks.
The Lions have an opportunity to play a very heavy and a very light pack of forwards, although they will likely go with a mix. However, no matter what size pack they go with, they will still be in and around the same size as South Africa.
Heaviest possible Lions eight (8kg heavier than SA):
- Mako Vunipola (183cm, 121kg)
- Luke Cowan-Dickie (183cm, 111kg)
- Tadhg Furlong (183 cm, 123kg)
- Maro Itoje (195cm, 115kg)
- Alun Wyn Jones (198cm, 121kg)
- Iain Henderson (198cm, 115kg)
- Tom Curry (185cm, 111kg)
- Jack Conan (193cm, 114kg)
Lightest possible Lions eight (72kg lighter than SA):
- Rory Sutherland (183cm, 113kg)
- Jamie George (180cm, 109kg)
- Andrew Porter (183cm, 114kg)
- Courtney Lawes (200cm, 111kg)
- Jonny Hill (201cm, 113kg)
- Justin Tipuric (188cm, 100kg)
- Hamish Watson (185cm, 101kg)
- Sam Simmonds (188cm, 90kg)
This lightest pack is still within 100kg of the Springboks; not bad for the lightest of the Lions up against the ‘colossi’ of world rugby.
Height is where South Africa remain on top
One thing is clear from the data available, though, and that is the idea that the Springboks are full of towering players. It still rings true.
Tendai Mtawarira was the shortest forward for the Springboks the last time they ran out on the pitch, standing at 183cm, however, since his retirement, the next shortest would be Steven Kitshoff, also at 183cm.
South Africa’s towering locks all come in over 200cm, with the exception of Franco Mostert, with the tallest of them being the injured RG Snyman at 207cm.
By comparison, the tallest player in the Lions squad, out of the forwards at least, is Jonny Hill, at just over 201cm. While the shortest in the Lions forward contingent is Jamie George at 180cm.
Even across the other international sides, it is difficult to find many taller players than South Africa’s second row, with Sam Whitelock (203cm), Paul Willemse (201cm), Rob Simmonds (200cm) and Romain Taofifenua (200cm) the only ones over two metres in their country’s last respective test matches.
Just over two months out from the British and Irish Lions series, the Springboks have yet to name their squad.
However, one thing that can be predicted is that while they might not physically be bigger than other countries anymore, they will still be just as physical and powerful.
After all, size does not always equal strength.
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