In the wake of Leinster’s defeat to La Rochelle, and the likes of Cian Healy and James Ryan being omitted from the British and Irish Lions squad, the question of Irish players’ size and power has again come up.
La Rochelle, in particular Will Skelton, bullied Leinster off the park in their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday.
Warren Gatland subsequently used Skelton’s dominance over Ryan as the ‘final straw’ that kept him out of his 37-man squad.
Speaking on Thursday’s Off The Ball, former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll pointed out the importance that size and physicality play in a Gatland selection.
“Gatland has always had a big thing about size,” O’Driscoll said. “He used to talk an awful lot to the Welsh team when Alun Wyn Jones would be playing with Jake Ball against Paul O’Connell and another.
“He’d talk about Wyn Jones at 120kg, Ball 119kg, while Paul O’Connell was 109kg. This was something that he reinforced into his team.
“If you look across the second rows, other than Tadhg Beirne, they are all big lumps.
“Is James Ryan a better player than Johnny Hill? In my book he absolutely is. Is he a bigger player than Johnny Hill? No, he is not.
“Jonny Hill has a bigger frame, he is thicker, and he packs more punch. Even though James Ryan gets through a huge amount of work, he is relatively light when it comes to second row at international level.”
However, if one looks at the official stats available on each of the players, James Ryan is not dwarfed by the players that made the Gatland cut.
According to the IRFU, Ryan stands at 203cm, weighing around 116kg, while Jonny Hill, who O’Driscoll suggested was included at the expense of Ryan, stands at 201cm, weighing 113kg, according to the RFU.
Hill measures up the same as Lawes, while Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje all stand around 198cm tall, with a weight range of 113-115kgs. Only the Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones weighs over 120kg according to the official sources.
Irish players in key positions all measure up roughly the same as their Lions counterparts, with the likes of Cian Healy (185cm, 117kg) actually weighing more and standing taller than all of the men that were selected ahead of them, except for Tadhg Furlong and Mako Vunipola, who measure up around the same size (183cm, 123kg).
Size does not equal physicality
Perhaps then, as Ronan O’Gara hinted at on Friday’s OTB AM, it is a question of physicality and use of power, rather than size that has kept some key players out of the Lions squad.
O’Gara used his La Rochelle side’s victory over Leinster as an example of using power and physicality to beat teams.
“The dramatics of being overpowered by a La Rochelle team, yeah it happened that day, but I think if we played this Saturday, I don’t know how that result goes,” O’Gara said.
“I wouldn’t have this interrogation of Leinster and suggest that they are lacking power players. There are tiny margins involved.”
For O’Gara, while powerful players are important, the more intelligent they are the better.
“You most definitely need powerful players,” O’Gara said. “But for me, what brings out the best in powerful players is the people who have the capacity to think two or three seconds ahead of everyone else.
“The way it is going in rugby, you probably need on a ratio of 2:1 [in favour of the big players], but for me the guys with intelligence will always shine through.”
While the likes of Will Skelton, who is 203cm tall and weighs 125kg, dominated the smaller Ryan by comparison, O’Gara believes that size was not the cause of the difference in power.
“It is how you define power, because there are powerful players, and then there’s Will Skelton,” O’Gara said.
“He most definitely has changed our team. He is off the Richter scale in what he can do; very few players can do that.
“That is probably the outlier in the survey, but so many things come down to tactics.”
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