Analysis: Small players like De Jongh make big impact at Murrayfield
WHEN Henry Pyrgos caught Kelly Brown’s controlled tap down and glided through a gaping hole in the lineout to score Scotland’s only try in Saturday’s Autumn Test against South Africa, the smallest man on the pitch made a big impact.
At 5ft 10in and just over 12 stone, he was smaller by an inch and lighter by a stone than Mike Blair, the player he replaced at scrum-half. But Pyrgos did not need muscle to get over the line, just safe hands, a quick mind and the guile that allowed him to seize the opportunity and stake a convincing claim to the No 9 jersey. It is not unusual for scrum-halves to be relatively small in comparison to their team-mates. Even so, when Pyrgos arrived at Glasgow, he was required to visit the gym and beef up before he could even be considered for a start, supplementing the view that, although skill is a desirable attribute, size will tilt the balance in a selection dilemma.
Some positions are more size-dependent than others and for good reason. More than 19 stone is packed into each of the 6ft 9in and 6ft 8in frames of locks Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton. They need that bulk to be effective, the former deploying it through athleticism and the latter with brute force.
In the front row, Scotland hooker Ross Ford may not be the best at lineout throwing but his physical presence in the scrum and the loose keeps him in the team. In Saturday’s starting back rows, John Barclay at 6ft 2in and 16 stone was the smallest.
Scotland can match any team in the world now and, when they lined up for the anthems against the All Blacks the previous Sunday, there was a surprised murmur in the crowd because Scotland were clearly bigger overall than the men from New Zealand.
Half-backs such as Pyrgos are in a different category, where the trade-off can be size against speed and ball skills. Only Ruan Pienaar of the half-backs who have played at Murrayfield in the last two weeks is more than 6ft tall. Weights range from Dan Carter’s 15 stone down to Greig Laidlaw’s 12 stone.
Out on the wing size and speed can be combined in contrasting packages. Think of the bulldozing power of Jonah Lomu and the quicksilver feet of Shane Williams and start an argument over who was the better player.
At full back, a roaming commission means balancing size and skill. On Saturday Scotland chose Stuart Hogg, 5ft 11in and 13 stone while South Africa had Zane Kirchner, 6ft 1in and 15 stone. Even though he was on the losing side, Hogg probably had more influence.
At centre, South Africa raised a few eyebrows by choosing the 5ft 9in and 13 stone Juan de Jongh at 13 alongside a more traditionally built inside centre in Jean de Villiers, 6ft 3in and 16 stone. De Jongh performed well, never missed a tackle and, in the one chance he did have to run, beat three tacklers to create danger.
Looking to the future, there is a school of thought that 20-year-old Hogg, a fixture in the Scotland team after only nine internationals, might be better at centre than full-back, where Peter Murchie, on the bench on Saturday, might fit in.
Hogg could combine with the 6ft 1in, 15 stone Matt Scott to offer greater options and the potential for providing that elusive spark which can turn a game. The worry is that he is simply not big enough to cope. Yet there has been intriguing evidence provided by de Jongh at outside centre and, before that, Ben Smith for the All Blacks. Smith, who followed another relative lightweight All Black creator in Conrad Smith, is taller but no heavier than Hogg and his confident performance was rounded off with a late try, suggesting that, if size matters, then so too does skill and guile.
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