The increase in the size of rugby players over the past thirty years is plain to see, and something that is substantial. Both backs and forwards have ballooned in size as the game has grown in physicality, but there are some positions that may be impervious to such change.
Fly-half is one which may not have experienced such increases, as the position is less dependent on physical attributes, rather it is tactical and skill-based. If the old expression is true that rugby is full of piano players and piano movers, fly-halves are of course the players, and therefore their physique is irrelevant in some ways.
A bigger flyhalf may provide more defensive stability, but arguably the greatest defensive fly-half ever, Jonny Wilkinson, did not boast a robust frame.
Just as the evolution of the game may not have affected this position as much as others, geography may not have a great bearing either. There are undisputedly stylistically different fly-halves all over the world and in every country, but they are more or less the same build, as once again, their role is not hugely dependent on their physical prowess.
So when looking at fly-halves across Europe, the likelihood is that there will be relatively indistinguishable differences between fly-halves in the top three leagues, France’s Top 14, England’s Gallagher Premiership and the Guinness Pro14.
The best round of fixtures to compare each league was probably the first weekend in January, which was sufficiently spaced between the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations, before European fixtures and before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended all play.
As it turns out, this hiatus midway through the season has meant some players have already left their clubs ahead of the new Top 14 season, or the resumption of the Premiership and Pro14. The majority of the players are still with the same clubs, and their statistics have been taken from their club’s website.
As expected, there is no alarming variation between any of the leagues when looking at the player stats.
The average height of players on this weekend in the Top 14 and the Premiership was the exact same, 1.82m (6ft), while they were only 2cm taller in the Pro14.
In all three leagues, the majority of players were between 1.8m-1.89m; 50 percent in the Top 14, 58% in the Premiership and 57% in the Pro14, but both the French and English league also opted for smaller fly-halves, with 36 percent and 33 percent, respectively, being 1.7m-1.79m.
Only 21 percent of players in the Pro14 were 1.7m-1.79m, the same amount as those who were 1.9m or more. In contrast, only 14 percent were above that height in France, and eight percent in England.
The three tallest fly-halves during this game week in the Pro14 were Leinster’s Ciaran Crawley, Zebre’s Carlo Canna, both 1.91m (6ft 3ins), and the Southern Kings’ JT Jackson, 1.9m (6ft 3ins); all from different countries.
This spread of heights in the Pro14 is symptomatic of the mix of nations that make up the league, five, which would in turn provide players on either side of the spectrum, something that is perhaps highlighted more distinctly when looking at the weights of players.
At first glance, the weight of fly-halves seems fairly even in Europe, much in the same way heights were. On this occasion, the Premiership and the Pro14 were identical, with players averaging 90kgs (14st 2lbs). Meanwhile, the Top 14 is slightly lighter than the other two, with players averaging 88kgs (13st 12lbs).
In reality, it is the Top 14 and the Pro14 that are more resemblant of one another; 43 percent of players in both leagues were 90kgs+. However, the Pro14 had the only player in Europe over 100kgs on this weekend, the Southern Kings’ Jackson at 100kgs (15st 11lbs), while the Top 14 had the only player under 80kgs, Castres Thomas Fortunel- 76kgs (12st). Except for those anomalous players, both leagues are well matched.
Conversely, 66% of fly-halves in England were over 90kgs, and the rest were between 80-89kgs. This proclivity to select heavier fly-halves is in keeping with the Premiership’s backline selection, where all players were by and large heavier than the other two leagues on this game week. Further, the French league tends to field the lightest backs, particularly seen at scrum-half.
Be that as it may, there is still not a huge amount of difference between each league compared to some other positions.
One thing that is apparent though, is that the heaviest fly-half in each league during this round of fixtures was a South African; Montpellier’s Handré Pollard, 98kgs (15st 6lbs), Sale Sharks’ heaviest Rob du Preez, 98kgs (15st 6lbs), and the Southern Kings’ Jackson, 100kgs (15st 11lbs).
If anything, this reveals South Africa’s preference to produce and select larger and imposing fly-halves, which is no secret. Pollard is the Springboks’ incumbent No10 and is not afraid to take the ball to the line, as was Butch James in the past. Even Morné Steyn was not exactly slight, although he was different to the other two.
Like all positions, there are some extreme examples of fly-halves and there are subtle differences across the continent, but this is not a position where players can plausibly differ by 40kgs and still wear the same shirt number. Of course there is not necessarily a necessity for those in a playmaking role to be akin to one another, but that is clearly what works best.
Léo Berdeu- 1.95m (6ft 5ins)/ 95kgs (14st 13lbs)
Patricio Fernandez- 1.93m (6ft 4ins)/ 97kgs (15st 4lbs)
Finn Russell- 1.82m (6ft)/ 87kgs (13st 10lbs)
ASM Clermont Auvergne
Camille Lopez- 1.76m (5ft 9ins)/ 88kgs (13st 12lbs)
Ben Botica- 1.78m (5ft 10ins)/ 93kgs (14st 9lbs)
Maxime Lafage- 1.83 (6ft)/ 84kgs (13st 3lbs)
Handré Pollard- 1.88m (6ft 2ins)/ 98kgs (15st 6lbs)
Enzo Hervé- 1.75m (5ft 9ins)/ 90kgs (14st 2lbs)
Antoine Hastoy- 1.8m (5ft 11ins)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Jules Plisson- 1.84m (6ft)/ 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
Louis Carbonel- 1.8m (5ft 11ins)/ 82kgs (12st 13lbs)
Thomas Fortunel- 1.77m (5ft 10ins)/ 76kgs (12st)
Nicolas Sanchez- 1.77m (5ft 10ins)/ 83kgs (13st 1lbs)
Romain Ntamack- 1.86m (6ft 1in)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Average: 1.82m (6ft)/ 88kgs (13st 12lbs)
Rob du Preez- 1.91m (6ft 3ins) / 98kgs (15st 6lbs)
Marcus Smith- 1.75m (5ft 9ins)/ 82kgs (12st 13lbs)
Owen Farrell- 1.88m (6ft 2ins)/ 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
Jono Lance- 1.83m (6ft)/ 91kgs (14st 5lbs)
Danny Cipriani- 1.85m (6ft 1in)/ 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
Rhys Priestland- 1.88m (6ft 2ins)/ 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
George Ford- 1.78m (5ft 10ins)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Callum Sheedy- 1.73m (5ft 8ins)/ 84kgs (13st 3lbs)
Jacob Umaga- 1.83m (6ft)/ 91kgs (14st 5lbs)
Dan Biggar- 1.88m (6ft 2ins)/ 93kgs (14st 9lbs)
Stephen Myler- 1.8m (5ft 11ins)/ 93kgs (14st 9lbs)
Gareth Steenson- 1.77m (5ft 10ins)/ 83kgs (13st 2lbs)
Average: 1.82m (6ft)/ 90kgs (14st 2lbs)
Billy Burns- 1.85m (6ft 1in)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Joey Carbery- 1.83m (6ft)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Jarrod Evans- 1.78m (5ft 10ins)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Angus O’Brien- 1.8m (5ft 11ins)/ 89kgs (14st)
Jaco van der Walt- 1.79m (5ft 11ins) / 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
JT Jackson- 1.9m (6ft 3ins)/ 100kgs (15st 11lbs)
Ciaran Frawley- 1.91m (6ft 3ins)/ 91kgs (14st 5lbs)
Conor Fitzgerald- 1.81m (5ft 11ins)/ 85kgs (13st 5lbs)
Carlo Canna- 1.91m (6ft 3ins)/ 93kgs (14st 9lbs)
George Whitehead- 1.85m (6ft 1in)/ 89kgs (14st)
Sam Davies- 1.8m (5ft 11ins)/ 87kgs (13st 10lbs)
Luke Price- 1.78m (5ft 10ins)/ 86kgs (13st 8lbs)
Tommaso Allan- 1.84m (6ft)/ 91kgs (14st 5lbs)
Peter Horne- 1.84m (6ft)/ 92kgs (14st 7lbs)
Average: 1.84m (6ft)/ 90kgs (14st 2lbs)
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