Small men making a big impression on the test rugby stage

Rugby is a game for big men. There is no getting away from this. Those who know me, will know that I always subscribe to bigger is better on the rugby field. Obviously selection decision are never quite so straight-forward because there are skillsets, heart, BMT and a few other ingredients to consider which sometimes suggest that the smaller player is the better option than the big guy. But certainly the pro international rugby world over, we are seeing bigger players generally getting the nod and getting the job done in most positions. Even for post-school recruitment, you’d be surprised how much emphasis is placed on dimension statistics. Players like Kwagga Smith, Cheslin Kolbe and Ox Nche seemingly had no right getting as far as they have because they definitely didn’t fit the physical dimension profile of players who could make it in their respective positions.

Anyways watching international test rugby it’s always great to see players who don’t necessarily meet the height and/or weight norms doing well.

Here’s my picks of a few who have impressed in recent times.

1 Alex Hepburn Eng Exeter 185 106 A bit of a fairytale story here. Hepburn was only about 6th on Eddie Jones list but injuries have pushed him all the way up the pecking order to earning 2 caps 6N caps in 2018. Nothing out of the norm about Hepburn’s height but certainly his lightweight 106kg frame is eye-catching and noticeable on the field.
2 Rory Best Ire Ulster 180 110 There is a much of a muchness here. Another top hooker is French captain Guilhem Guirado. I can’t say that either man is particularly small but I couldn’t think of a small hooker who is turning heads right now.
3 Rabah Slimani Fra Clermont 178 110 It’s not that unusual to come across a prop less that 1.80m in height but Slimani has the added benefit of being a extremely highly rated tighthead scrummager at the moment. Those are not words you come across often to describe SA tighthead props.
4 Marcos Kremer Arg Jaguares 196 115 Kremer is a hot property player on the rise. He’ll only turn 21 this year. Definitely a player worth tracking. He plays at bit at blindside as well but as far as locks go, he’s regarded on the short side.
5 Maro Itoje Eng Saracens 195 116 This guy is a superstar all-rounder. One of the best in the workd. Even at just 1.95m he’s athletism makes him a great lineout exponent. Like Kremer also possess the mobility to play flank.
6 Michael Hooper Aus Waratahs 182 101 If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you know the Aussie opensider very well. He a livewire who gives 110% to the cause for 80min. He’s definitely not a big player by modern standards.
7 John Barclay Sco Scarlets 190 102 Barclay has the height for the blindside but nowhere near the weight associated with the position but it hasn’t stopped him from being a fantastic international player for the past couple of years.
8 Sam Simmonds Eng Exeter 184 102 Like his Exeter teammate Hepburn, he’s another rags to riches test rugby story. Injuries to England’s two first choice no.8’s who both happen to be very big boys has afforded Simmonds the chance to start and he’s grabbed it with both hands. At 1.84m he’s statistically almost 3 inches too short for the position and at 102kg possibly 10kg too light but what he may not have in big ball carrying he more than makes up for with speed off the mark and workrate around the park.
Pack – avg H, total W 186 862
9 Aaron Smith NZ Highlanders 169 83 Scrumhalves are generally small players but one of the smallest of the lot happens to be the as good as they come . You might have a case for saying TJ Perenara of the Canes has been the best SR 9 over the past couple of seasons, but you can’t deny that when it comes to test rugby Smith’s pass, presence and decision-making have made him numero uno (along with Murray of Ireland).
10 Richie Mo’unga NZ Crusaders 176 83 Flyhalf is another possie where modern day rugby can hide a small physique player and there are few short guys around like George Ford, Lima Sopoaga and new kid on the block Anthony Belleau. I went with uncapped Mo’unga because place-kicking aside he is just such a splendid ball player to watch and he looks like a featherweight. He has a real chance of stepping up and onto the AB bench this year.
11 Jack Nowell Eng Exeter 180 96 In SA a wing of 1.80m isn’t regarded small but in other top rugby nations it’s developed into a position where speed is still a prerequisite but where taller players are being backed particularly if they have the power game and aerial skills. So Jack Nowell is one of the shorter wing in the 6N setup but wow has he got some great strength on his feet and the necessary footwork to back it up when required.
12 Ngani Laumape NZ Hurricanes 178 97 Arguable the breakthrough backline player of the 2017 Super Rugby was try-scoring inside centre Laumape who has the weight and power but bucks the trend for his position by being way shorter than 1.85m
13 Jonathan Joseph Eng Bath 183 91 Perhaps Joseph’s star is not shining as brightly as at did a season and more ago when he proved to be a lethal finisher but he remains a strong starting contender at top level and all this in spite of the obvious lack of size in height and weight.
14 Keith Earls Ire Munster 178 86 Past his prime and the days when he was regarded as a flashy player but still part of Joe Schmidt’s Irish rugby setup. Again not small by SA standards but definitely a little guy in the context of the type of players who more often than not get picked in out wide positions these days.
15 Damian McKenzie NZ Chiefs 175 81 Undoubtedly one of the highlight creative players of Southern Hemisphere rugby is the diminutive player who just never seems to be shown up in the highball defensive game like one would expect a 1.75m fullback to be.


  1. Interesting read.

    I must however point out that your comment wrt SA tightheads is not quite accurate.

    The following tightheads should not embarrass any international team:

    Jannie du Plessis
    Wilco Louw
    Frans Malherbe
    Vincent Koch

    And Coenie also showed renewed appetite for playing the toughest position on the field.

  2. @Rainier: Yes. Also Julian Redelinghuys and Schalk Brits.

    Not 15-a-side internationals, but certainly making a statement. Kwagga Smith could also be on your list, and I wonder how Ruhan Nel would measure up because I think he has a future at centre in the 15-man code.

  3. @Quagga: I omitted Julian as he has retired, but he would definitely be on that list – a much better scrummer than Ruan Dreyer.

  4. @Rainier: Hey Rainier I think you mentioned the operative words and the sort of missed them at the same time.

    TH props that would not embarrass any international team are not in the same bracket as TH props who rated for dominating opponents and winning scrum penalties.

    My take on the props you’ve mentioned.
    Jannie du Plessis probably past his prime. Workrate wasn’t the best during his last days as an international but not one known to let his team down at scrumtime.
    Wilco Louw a revelation during trying times for SA. He’s held his own which by SA standards of late have been a blessing.
    Frans Malherbe too injury prone to be of consequence at the moment. You can’t be a highly rated TH if you can’t even get or stay fit – that’s a reality.
    Coenie Oosthuizen in 2017 seemed to find the form that made him a freak during his younger years but also injury prone. His overall form as a TH over the last few years combined has general been below the accepted level, meaning he was likely to get beaten up in the scrums.
    Vincent Koch is proving to be a respectable prop in the Premiership but more so because of his allround game than his scrumming ability. Seems to come unstuck in the setpiece every so often.

  5. As mentioned that scrum half’s are generally small in comparison to the rest of the field, I do believe that rugby has a place for small players. For a half back you need to have speed, acceleration, agility, elusiveness, and vision but to mention a few. These are usually the cornerstone of the smaller players. One thing I have noticed with small half backs is that they can get down low at speed and can be very difficult to catch especially if they are also agile.

  6. Point is, would anyone pick that dream team of dwarfs & short shits as is against a top team? You can afford one, maybe two, at all levels of rugby nowadays, but that depends on the positional balance of a team

  7. @Ploegskaar: I just remembered who you are now. You were that 12 y o back in the 1980s that would heckle Faffa Knoetze from the Newlands stand, telling him to get go get an actuary degree or something instead of trying to cut it with the big boys in midfield. :mrgreen:

    Jokes aside, I wouldn’t like to go up against NZ, Eng, Ire or Wales at the moment but I reckon for the rest of what world rugby has to offer the XV listed above would do just fine.

    But in principle I agree with you regarding a team of small players vs a team of big ones. It’s a game made easier when a player has size on his side.

    The list above is really about about 15 individuals who don’t fit the modern day norm rather than suggesting a team of small players is the way to go.

    I’ve often thought it would be interesting if rugby at various levels imposed an overall weight restriction per team. So a team who had a 130kg player would have to balance that excessive weight out by having a below avg weight teammate to make sure they didn’t exceed the overall restriction. Imagine at school 1st XV level if the combined pack weight couldn’t be greater than 800kg and the backline together had to be less than 550kg.

  8. @beet: no matter what the mix, I believe a smaller player with skills, workrate, heart and brains definately trumps a numbskull giant. Watching varsity cup this evening, it was quite evident how brawn + stupidity costs you games.
    The Tuks captain looks like a friendly chap, but WTF wrt his decision on winning the toss.

  9. @beet: I understood the purpose of your post clearly, but there has been a lot of chatter on social media for some time about various smaller players that deserve a shot. Point is, you can’t play all of them in the same team at the same time, you need to take the balance and dynamics into account to accommodate them, develop A plays to optimize their strengths and D strategies to nullify height/weight shortcomings. Still, I maintain there are no limits to upskilling a big player, but there are natural limits on how tall/heavy you can make a small player

  10. @Ploegskaar: I think there are limits to upskilling a big player as well..If you don’t have natural ballsense or vision, there is no way you can teach someone that, no matter how many hours you spend on practice!.

  11. @BrotherBear: We all like the easy decisions :-D

    But sometimes it comes down to
    smaller player with skills, workrate, brains, mobility but questionable tackle defence and non-presence in collisions


    the so-called numbskull giant who won’t let you down on defence, has a noticeable presence in all collisions attack+D and setpieces but isn’t the quickest around the park and struggles with any form of on field lateral thinking ability, has a dubious pass plus isn’t a quick adapter to the changing dynamics of a game or opponents.

    Now the decision becomes complicated and in many positions it is easier to sacrifice what the small player in this scenario brings to have the consistency of the big players contributions.

  12. @Ploegskaar:

    “Still, I maintain there are no limits to upskilling a big player, but there are natural limits on how tall/heavy you can make a small player”

    Point taken. And practically applied in all the top rugby playing countries.

  13. @Rainier: :-D No criteria to start with. When we have a TH who commentators and journalists aren’t afraid to bracket as best in the world, then there is a case. But at the moment your words of “won’t embarrass us” is spot on as the best compliment we are able to pay a Saffa TH prop.

    I reckon TH prop, scrumhalf, outside centre are positions where SA is very short of quality. In spite of the many good flyhalves we see at SBR level, there is also a huge problem converting these kids to successful pros 5 or so years down the line. Backline play in SA is proving to be a big issue at senior level – lack of accuracy, creativity and intensity even on D.

  14. @Falcon22: At scrumhalf with Aaron Smith and Conor Murray its good decision-making and pinpoint accuracy in execution all done at high speed that sets them apart. Their communication is also top notch.

  15. @beet: I think there is plenty of SH talent they just dont get the opportunity. How Papier has taken this long to get a proper go at the Bulls is beyond me, and what I hear from Brendan Nell from SS, he wont even be first choice at the start of SR. Phillips at the Stormers also needs to be given a proper chance, how Duvenage got recruited back is also crazy.

  16. @CharlesZA: I think there is a growing argument that the post-school problem in SA is more with coaching than with player potential. But at the end of the day you have to wonder what is being done to change this.

    Looking at the top 9’s in world rugby at the moment, there are a number of teams who have 2nd choice players who look far better than anything in SA. With the passion for rugby here there are no excuses for us not having at least one highly rated player in every possie including SH.

  17. @beet: een van die beste kleiner spelers wat ek al gesien het was brussow, hy het baie van die groot spelers fiesies geboelie, groot beteken nie altyd goed nie en klein beteken nie altyd swak nie ne, n ander kleiner speler wat ek dink n bok moes word was Robert Ebershon… In die ou dae was daar mighty mouse Piet Bester en ook Johan Steyger

  18. Brussow stem ek saam

    eborsohn baie ave en Piet bester was n awb steroidbaba–Johan Stygerook maar so so/

    noem eerser name soos Hempies du toit,Divan Serfontein en Uli Scmidt–daar is lewe buite Grey en die Vrystaat

  19. @Smallies: yeah in a South African context Brussow stands out as major exception to the rule. On the international stage his dimensions were not that different to those of Michael Hooper and George Smith who arguably achieved far more than he did. In the modern age Neil Back who was under 1.80m in height and played flank in that great England team of the early 2000 under Sir Clive WW, probably the best example of mighty mouseness.

    I think Ebersohn may have given up on the dream of playing for the Boks a season or so too soon. He was peaking when he left SA and I’m sure there would have been opportunity for him, just like Francois Venter has had to pay his dues and then some to get a change in the G&G.

    Piet and Andre Bester were like two club bouncers operating in the frontrow :-D I didn’t realise Johan Styger was that small.

  20. @boerboel: Back around the time I first started watching Natal play there was a young no.8 named Andrew Aiken. He was about 1.80m. Super player. Later messed up his career by moving to Province :twisted: Jokes.

    Also loved Faffa Knoetze as a 1.6 something short outside centre back then.

  21. @beet: You have to take into consideration that the Bok frontrow and pack has been very unsettled since Jannie, Bismarck and the boys retired from international rugby.

    And at tight head your lock and flank plays a major role in your success. Werner Kruger became a Bok due to Bakkies, there was no other reason.

    Having thought about this Tiny Team I can select the following back line:

    Gio Aplon
    Courtnall Skosan
    De Jongh

    Forwards will be a bit tougherer…

  22. @beet: generally agree, it is complicated. Small backs normally good on attacking, but defense an issue. Small forwards generally good around, except for weight factor (scrums, mauls, etc.). Big guys selected for that reason do tend to make poor decisions and thus forfeit good attacking opportunities or give ball away.
    Agree with Ploegskaar that mix is important. Good example is that I prefer Franco Mostert over Lood de Jager. Also Brussow or Kriel or Kwagga over Kolisi – have to say nothing to do with colour. The big England lock (of colour) is one of best in world, to me.

  23. @CharlesZA: i agree.i have watched Embrose when he was at Garsies. a brilliant player. he will get his day, and once he does he will prove himself that i’m sure.


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