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Jake White: Are modern rugby players actually better?

OPINION: The Six Nations has given me bit of head space to reflect about rugby and its direction of travel. It’s funny, I remember Frik du Preez, the great Springbok captain was once asked, ‘Would your team of the 1960s beat the current South Africa team? And he quipped, ‘Only by 20 points’. When they asked him why, he said, ‘Well, because we’re all in our Eighties,’ writes Jake White in his RugbyPass column.

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Frik loves a laugh, but the question all sports fans would love to know the answer to is this; would the legends of yesteryear beat the modern players of today?

In the last year we’ve seen a thrilling World Cup in France, a high-quality Six Nations, and the debate has never been more relevant. Where is rugby today? Is it better off or worse? It’s a pertinent question because in the last few months, two icons of the game have been laid to rest: JPR Williams and Barry John.

Now I started coaching in 1982. I was a young Varsity scholar studying teaching. One of the things I had access to was VHS tapes of the greats. It gave me a body of work to study. You know, the triple Grand Slam-winning Welsh team of the Seventies, the glorious 1971 and 1974 British & Irish Lions tours and who could forget the iconic All Blacks teams that would travel to the British Isles and beat every home nation convincingly? Individually, we could regale at the Phil Bennett sidestep, the JPR Williams thunderbolt tackle. Sitting there, late into the night, watching this massive box of a TV, I could gain insight into the early years of marksmen like Grant Fox or once-in-a-generation athletes like Zinzan Brooke. It always seemed like there was a massive gap between these icons and the rest.

So, I would like to ask myself and maybe the public; has rugby got better? Kids now are full-time. They have training apps, S&C coaches, they have access to YouTube to analyse other players – in fact they’ve never had so many learning tools. But look at the legends, those runners Gareth Edwards, JJ Williams and Andy Irvine, or bruisers Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery and Fran Cotton. They were incredible players. Are those adamantine Lions as gifted as those we see today?

I understand cycles come and go. Take this Championship winning Ireland side. People are hyping them up, and mark my words, they are special, they play a great brand of rugby, but they haven’t won a World Cup. I’d even ask, would they have beaten an Ireland side comprising of Brian O’Driscoll, Keith Wood, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell? Now I don’t know the answer. My opinion doesn’t count. It is a question for rugby union fans. Look at some of the other celebrated sides. The double World Cup-winning Australian sides from the nineties with players like Matt Burke, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff and Wendell Sailor. Then there’s Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Jerome Kaino, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu. That 2015 All Blacks vintage was pretty extraordinary.

At the 2023 World Cup, Fiji beat Australia, and went ever so close to beating Wales and England. Does that mean the Tier 1 nations have actually regressed or the emerging nations have moved forward? To be fair to Tier 2 nations, what they do is say, ‘judge us on the World Cups’ because they get access to plentiful support to face the world’s best players.

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Why? Because World Rugby do pump a lot of money in, to the tune of tens of millions through the high-performance department. It’s all to level the playing field. They will coach and condition these less well-resourced players to compete. You don’t want only one or two sides being able to win a global competition. Look at football. The World Cup would be boring if Brazil or Germany won it every four years. In fact, eight teams have won it since 1930, compared to four nations in rugby since 1987.

Progress hasn’t been absolute. At old World Cups, you used to have Western Samoa skittling Wales at the World Cup, but Samoa has fallen away. Or look at Romania. They used to be a force but have withered. There are success stories since we went professional. Look at what Italy has achieved in the last few weeks with two professional teams, drawing with France who have 14 clubs, and then beating Scotland and Wales on consecutive weekends. What joy it brought to the faces of the Azzurri.

In September 1995, rugby went professional. That meant that players were tracked from an early age. They’d go to academies, get paid and the very best would go on to play professional rugby. If they were special, they’d represent their country. Professionalism didn’t benefit all. In Wales all their club teams got subsumed by the regional structure, Scotland’s clubs went the same way. In South Africa we went from 22 unions to 14 unions.

Why do I mention this? Well, the irony is I’m not sure if we’ve improved more by having less players, more money and more time to hone skills. The bank clerks, doctors, farmers and lawyers of days gone by had more demands placed upon them. They would train early in the morning, or late into the night, just to fit in their day jobs and that takes real dedication, a passion for the sport and an unbelievably competitive nature. Then they would play on pitches that resembled bogs or dustbowls. Nowadays, the elite train on perfect pitches, with indoor facilities, artificial turf, and at traffic-friendly times. Has complacency crept in? You tell me.

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One thing I think we can all agree is that players are fitter, bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, and the pitch dimensions haven’t changed. It’s a bit like in golf, players hit longer, have better equipment with graphite shafts, not wooden clubs and the golf course stays the same length. It’s the same in tennis, so coaches have to adapt.

If you look at individual moments, look at that magnificent Barbarians try from 1973. It would stand up today for its visceral thrill, derring-do and joyful abandon. Indeed, how would it compare to that wonderful French try at the weekend finished off by Nolann le Garrec. Talking of Les Bleus. Are you telling me Serge Blanco, Jean Pierre-Rives, Philippe Sella, Franck Mesnel wouldn’t thrive in today’s game. They were players from the Gods! Over the channel, you can’t forget the English side I was privileged to coach against. Tindall, Greenwood, Grewcock, Johnson, Dallaglio, Thompson, Wilkinson. How many of them would have made the side that faced France last weekend? They were playing at a rarefied level less than 10 years after professionalism of the game and hats off to them.

Right now, I can’t see any team that is as dominant as those great teams were in those days. At the 2023 World Cup, there was one point between France and South Africa. Three points between Ireland and New Zealand. No one side standing on the shoulders of giants.

Sports fans will always ask questions and compare generations. I was at a fundraiser recently, and all these little kids were asking me and some of the Bulls players the same questions. Who were the best players you played against? Who were the toughest players you faced? What’s the toughest stadium to win in? In other sports, you’d argue with your father over who is the better boxer, Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson? Racing drive, Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton? Tennis player Bjorn Borg or Novak Djokovic? Footballer, Pele or Messi. American footballer, Joe Montana or Tom Brady. I watch all those sports and wonder if they’ve developed at a faster pace than rugby.

Debates are fun and can often improve the product which is why I love sport. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

By Jake White

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