The evolution of World Cup-winning hookers
SPOTLIGHT: The increase in the weight of professional rugby players over the past 30 years is well documented, with some positions seeing staggering rises.
There are a variety of reasons for such changes, but the switch to professionalism perhaps had the most resounding effect on the physicality, with huge strides in the conditioning of players.
Prior to England’s semi-final encounter with the All Blacks at last year’s World Cup, The Guardian showed how much the average weight of each team had increased since the countries met at the 1991 World Cup.
The article highlighted that the average weight of an England player rose from 94.3kgs to 105.8kgs and 91.6kgs to 104.6kgs for the All Blacks over the course of 28 years, with the most significant rises coming in the tight five and the outside backs.
It is undeniable that the average weight of players has risen since the amateur era, but it’s slightly different when looking at the game since the dawn of professionalism. Average weights, of course, have continued to increase, particularly in the backs where it has become commonplace to see the formidable frames of players traditionally seen in the pack wearing the numbers 12 to 14 on their backs.
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In the forwards, however, the changing demands of the game, especially in terms of the speed, has meant mobility is now favoured over bulk in some cases. This applies to the modern hooker where the role of the player has changed over the 25-year history of the professional game.
When tracking the World Cup winning hookers over the nine editions of the competition, there is a clear trend in terms of the weight of players in this position, but it also shows that there has not simply been an upwards movement.
In 1987, the All Blacks’ Sean Fitzpatrick weighed 105kgs (16st 8lbs) while Australia’s Phil Kearns was 108kgs (17st) in 1991 and South Africa’s Chris Rossouw was 105kgs (16st 8lbs) in 1995. There wasn’t too much dissimilarity in the size of hookers during the amateur era and that continued into 1999 with Michael Foley weighing 105kgs (16st 8lbs) and his replacement Jeremy Paul 104kgs (16st 5lbs).
However, come 2003, there was a sharp rise with England’s Steve Thompson weighing 115kgs (18st 2lbs). While Thompson actually played the entirety of that 100-minute final versus Australia, the increase in the use of substitutions meant that larger and more physically dominant players could be deployed for shorter periods and replaced with another similarly built player, something that is an issue today.
The Springboks in 2007 did not differ too greatly from England, with John Smit weighing 116kgs (18st 4lbs) and his replacement Bismarck du Plessis weighing only a kilogram lighter. Smit also played for his country at tighthead prop, which is an indication of the approach Jake White took in 2007 when choosing his front row.
In 2011, Keven Mealamu started for the All Blacks, weighing in at 109kgs (17st 2lbs), with the 115kgs (18st 2lbs) Andrew Hore on the bench. Four years later, Mealamu was a replacement in the final behind the more mobile Dane Coles, albeit one kg heavier at 110kgs. The most recent winners South Africa started with Bongi Mbonambi, who was the lightest hooker to ever win a World Cup at 98kgs (15st 6lbs), with substitute Malcolm Marx weighing 107kg (16st 12lbs).
Different sizes of players can sometimes be down to the stylistic approaches of each team. The Springboks in 2019 were no different from any other pack-orientated South African team in the past, but they still fielded the two lightest hookers to win a final this century.
South Africa perhaps provide the best insight into the changing demands of this position, as there is a stark contrast between the amateur era in 1995 and the surge in size come 2007. Twelve years after that win second title, the hookers in Rassie Erasmus’ squad were noticeably different from Jake White’s.
Mbonambi fitted in with South Africa’s tireless, well-conditioned defence, while Marx is one of the leading hookers in the world, recognised for his work at the breakdown. He is more similar to an openside flanker than to a prop, as Smit was in 2007. Indeed, Schalk Brits, the third hooker in South Africa’s squad, actually started in the back row during the tournament in Japan.
The notion of a hooker playing as a loose forward, usually a flanker, is growing more common and was also seen in the RWC with Scotland’s Fraser Brown starting in both positions. Eddie Jones has also used Saracens’ Jack Singleton as a flanker from the bench. This could yet again be symptomatic of the changes to the game and the evolution of the position.
Of course, looking solely at the RWC winners may not necessarily be reflective of the way the entire game operates, but it is reflective of the approach taken by the best team in the world at that time which, in theory, other teams aspire to replicate.
With that said, the average weight of starting hookers in the northern hemisphere during the first week of domestic action in January further suggests that the modern player has moved away from those in the 2000s.
No2s in the Top 14 averaged 107kgs, while those in the Premiership and the PRO14 were 106kgs. Interestingly, the second-heaviest player across the three leagues was 2007 World Cup winner du Plessis, who is now playing for Montpellier. At the age of 36 he may well be a vestige of the former mode of thought.
Thompson, Smit and du Plessis could well have been the exception rather than the rule, but they were nonetheless part of the most successful teams at World Cups and illustrate what a change has occurred over 20 years.
THE WORLD CUP FINAL WINNING HOOKERS
1987 NEW ZEALAND
Sean Fitzpatrick – 1.83m 105kgs (16st 8lbs)
Phil Kearns – 1.83m 108kgs (17st)
1995 SOUTH AFRICA
Chris Rossouw – 1.82m 105kgs (16st 8lbs)
Michael Foley – 1.82m 105kgs (16st 8lbs)
Jeremy Paul – 1.84m 104kgs (16st 5lbs)
Steve Thompson – 1.91m 115kgs (18st 2lbs)
2007 SOUTH AFRICA
John Smit – 1.86m 116kgs (18st 4lbs)
Bismarck du Plessis – 1.9m 115kgs (18st 2lbs)
2011 NEW ZEALAND
Keven Mealamu – 1.81m 109kgs (17st 2lbs)
Andrew Hore – 1.83m 115kgs (18st 2lbs)
2015 NEW ZEALAND
Dane Coles – 1.84m 110kgs (17st 5lbs)
Keven Mealamu – 1.81m 109kgs (17st 2lbs)
2019 SOUTH AFRICA
Bongi Mbonambi – 1.77m 98kgs (15st 6lbs)
Malcolm Marx – 1.85m 107kgs (16st 12lbs)
(*all weights taken from the Rugby World Cup website)