An article from ESPN in 2012 discussed research performed by an exercise scientist regarding a tall backs heavy forwards theory which suggested that teams with these attributes have the most success.

There have been other articles on the topic too.

Julian Savea in action.
Photo: Scott Davis

But as rugby becomes increasingly gym focused and the top teams become closer in size, is this theory relevant? Are other areas of the game more important when considering the success of a team? Like, the length of time players have played together, test experience, age, fitness, mental toughness, high-intensity rugby exposure etc.

Unfortunately, many of these elements are very difficult or impossible to measure.

I wanted to know for sure if this theory was accurate. So, I gathered data for specific player attributes I could find, such as weight, height, age, points and tests for players from the top 11 international rugby teams in the world. And, based on their best possible matchday squads for the areas mentioned above, I created a table to compare each national team’s statistics.

From this table, it’s easy to see how each team stacks up against one another in these five areas.

Interesting insights

Currently, of the top 10 teams in the world, the average forward weighs 115kg. Of the top 10 teams only South Africa, France and Fiji are far heavier than average, and they’re all having mixed success right now. This possibly indicates a preference towards more mobile, fit and agile forward packs.

Actually, regarding overall squad weights, among the top 5 teams, the All Blacks and England just scrape above the 106kg player average, and again Fiji, France and South Africa are the heaviest. Most teams hover around the 104-106kg mark.

So perhaps having heavier forwards or even being heavier overall isn’t necessarily a relevant sign of a successful team?

Nadolo is a wrecking ball on the wing whenever he takes the field.
By 34 super héros (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

What about the backs?

In the backs, height seems to be more prevalent among the top-ranked teams in the world whereof the top 7 teams only Scotland stands out as being far below average height. This is where the tall backs heavy forwards theory is more accurate. But generally, the tallest backs are from Australia, Wales, New Zealand and Ireland.

Overall, average team height among the top 10 is grouped quite closely together with all teams between 186cm and 188cm. The All Blacks are the tallest team overall, and England are among the shortest. This shows that there is very little difference in overall height between the top teams, but with the exception of England, the top 5 teams are generally taller than the rest, with NZ, Australia, Wales and Ireland the tallest.

The importance of test experience

The aspect that seems to show more prevalence in higher ranked teams is, possibly unsurprisingly, test experience. The top 4 teams in the world each have a higher than average number of tests per player (over 36), but the most experienced test side right now is seventh-ranked Wales. Scotland has a number of average tests per player far below the top 10 average at this stage. This possibly shows how much of a threat they could be in 2 years time. Of the lower five teams, with the exception of Wales, only Argentina is slightly above average tests, all the other teams are below average.

It’s also worth noting that the top 5 teams in the world would all have lower BMI’s than the next 6 ranked teams except for England, who are by comparison an anomaly as they are generally shorter and heavier on average compared to the other 4 of the top 5 ranked teams.

The Welsh conundrum

The odd thing found from this analysis is that a fit Wales measures up very well in contrast to neighbours England, Scotland and Ireland. Wales have more tests, more points and are generally physically the equal or better of the other home nation players. So if they can ever field a full strength test side, they could be a real threat in 2019.

The tall backs heavy forwards theory conclusion

Overall, the tall backs heavy forwards theory is semi-believable. Heavy forwards are no longer a prominent indicator of a team’s success. In some cases weight could be a hindrance (i.e. South Africa, France, Fiji) against a lighter more agile pack. But on the other hand, the top 5 teams in the world each have taller backs than most other teams or are at least near average. In fact, overall height is more prevalent among the higher ranked teams. Except England, the top 7 teams in the world are all above 187cm on average. The tallest team overall is the All Blacks at over 188cm. The strongest trend in the top-ranked teams right now is average test experience. The top 4 teams, as well as Wales, are all above average.

Jordie Barrett stands 196m making him the tallest equal All Black back ever. He shares this with Jonah Lomu.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung

Also, based on these figures Scotland is the most significant surprise. They are generally lighter and shorter than most teams, particularly in the backs. They are also quite a young and inexperienced test team overall in comparison to the other top 5 countries. So if they can perform this well at the moment, imagine what they might be capable of at the World Cup in just under two years time, when their squad is bulkier and more experienced.

So, going by this, it would seem that a taller, more experienced team that is slightly lighter than average in the forwards, with taller backs, should have the most success. This almost exactly defines the All Blacks and to varying degrees Ireland, Australia, Wales and England.

Note:

As a control, I checked out the stats for players from the USA, Georgia, Canada, Germany and Brazil. And it quickly became evident that generally international forward packs are all fairly heavy and reasonably tall by Tier 1 standards. The difference comes in the backs, where it’s clear that Tier 2 teams struggle to find tall and heavy backs. Average test experience is also relatively low, except in the case of Georgia.

Author: Steven Cartwright

I grew up in Taranaki and was introduced to rugby at 8 years old, and have been playing ever since. I went to school at FDMC in New Plymouth. After graduating from Canterbury University I moved with my fiancee to Brazil where I’ve been playing/coaching rugby, working and partaking in the odd caipirinha.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Great stuff Steven!

    A few thoughts:

    1. The All Blacks have target weight ranges for each position, tailored for the individual. Maybe when the original article was written, teams were a bit short of that target, now some have overshot it, with a loss of mobility the result.

    2. I like how the All Blacks are tall overall, but still find a place for the odd little guy.

  2. Between the time of writing and publication the French have announced their 6 nations squad which is a huge turnaround. Their squad is on average much lighter and shorter than all other 6 nations teams, particularly in the backs. This probably points towards a French team that will look to move the ball around and play in a quicker, more agile and less combative style, which could be dangerous.

  3. Great stats mate, very interesting with the kick pass and kick to compete being major attaching weapons now

  4. Front rowers are squashed between the opposition pack pushing one way, and the the rest of their own pack pushing them from behind – it’s something that requires a certain stockiness. Which definitely skews the overall weight figures for the forwards. Heavy front rows and light 2nd and 3rd rows theory?

    • Cheers Hector, actually from what I could find locks weigh on average 118kg whereas front rowers are around 115kg (hookers included). Most props nowadays weigh in around 120kg and hookers are a bit less at 105-110kg. But loose forwards are definitely lighter on average at around 105-110kg, although there is quite a range of heights and weights in third row forwards in international rugby. I think overall, tight fives are getting heavier, and loose forwards are getting taller. Many locks outweigh props nowadays and I’m not sure why that is (perhaps they’re being used to attack the gain line more often).

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