Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Rise of the supersize rugby player

By Matt Knight, CNN
updated 4:45 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
  • Rugby players bigger and stronger than ever before
  • A simple sample of All-Blacks though ages shows marked height/weight change
  • Scientific researchers in France says improved training and conditioning a factor
  • Many other sports also show that size matters for elite athletes

Follow us at @WorldSportCNN and like us on Facebook

(CNN) -- Long-time rugby fans don't need graphs or charts to see that players are getting bigger.

But even a studious supporter might be surprised at the difference in size between today's top players and those playing 40 years ago as the top row of the graphic above shows.

This snapshot of three New Zealand backs viewed at 10-year intervals over four decades shows that average height and weight has increased by 10 cm (four inches) and 14 kilograms (31 lbs) respectively.

While the sample -- a wing, a center and a fullback -- might be small, it does reflect changes going on in the sport.

Professor Jean-Francois Toussaint, director of the Institute of biomedical and epidemiological research for sport (IRMES) at the French Institute of Sport (INSEP) has been involved in a number of scientific studies in recent years examining sporting physique.

Dan Carter's quest for another cup
The rise of rugby sevens in Hong Kong
New Zealand flag controversy

"The change has been dramatic in the last 20 years with large increases in all championships both in the southern and northern hemisphere," Toussaint said.

"The increase in both forwards and backs has been around four to five centimeters over the past 20 years and an increase in 12 kilograms. It has been a large change," he added.

These muscle-bound physiques have broadly coincided with the advent of professionalism (in 1995) and have made size a key determinant of a team's fortunes. Bigger, it seems, is better, according to research led by Toussaint's INSEP colleague, Adrien Sedeaud.

In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012, Sedeaud looked at the height and weight of more than 2,500 rugby players at six World Cups from 1987 to 2007.

What he found was that the teams which performed the best had the tallest backs and the heaviest forwards.

Other factors also came into play -- greater collective experience is also important, Sedeaud concluded -- but it was notable that amid all the complexities of measuring performance that things like player weight and height were so obviously playing a prominent part.

This supersizing of sportsmen hasn't been limited to rugby players, it's evident in many other elite-level sport. But why?

"These changes have both to do with the (rising) mean height of the population, but at the same time the knowledge of training, conditioning and the hours spent training and in recovery. Many of these things have played a small role in the changes," Toussaint said.

Read: Legendary Fijian honored

For tennis, the men increased by seven centimeters in 50 years and the women increased by 10 cm in the same years.
Jean-Francois Toussaint, INSEP

Increased use of anabolic steroids may also be a factor, he thinks, although in rugby's case the incidence of positive tests is low compared with some other sports. In his study, Sedeaud points to the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2009 annual report which identified 39 positive samples out of 5,725 tests.

Non-contact sports like tennis and swimming have also seen the same upward curve in recent decades.

"For tennis, the men increased by seven centimeters in 50 years and the women increased by 10 cm in the same years. Both sexes have seen the same trend," Toussaint said.

But there are already signs that these growth spurts may be starting to tail off.

"We are seeing places where plateaus have been reached already or are close to being reached -- for example the height," Toussaint said.

Read: How radio made the rugby star

"If you look at the U.S. baseball data from 1868 you see increases in both mass and height -- but the height has stopped for the past 30-40 years," he added.

"In American Football you see the same thing. Basketball is also the same -- in the past 30 years the height of those players hasn't changed.

"On the other side, the mass (BMI) -- which is a very strong parameter influencing the performance both in speed and inertia -- is still increasing a little bit."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Samisoni Viriviri is the first Fijian to be crowned Player of the Year by the International Ruby Board. CNN's Andrew Stewart report.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
England captain Tom Mitchell goes head to head with his Scottish counterpart Colin Gregor.
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
CNN's Christina Macfarlane looks at how the 2014 Commonwealth Games could help generate more interest in the sport.
updated 4:45 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Long-time rugby fans don't need graphs or charts to see that players are getting bigger -- but see how they compare to other athletes.
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
Fiji's Samisoni Viriviri
New Zealand may have retained the Sevens World Series in fine style, but a Fijian claimed the honor of being named top player.
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
aisale Serevi of Fiji in action during their semi final win over New Zealand during the Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens being played at the Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong.
As a young child in Fiji, rugby star Waisale Serevi strained to hear tales of his heroes through the crackles of an old transistor radio.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Two years ago, Kayla McAlister was playing netball. Now she's the world's best rugby sevens player, emulating her All Black sibling Luke.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
By day, he dons a white lab coat and seeks to rid the world of disease. At weekends, he terrorizes opposition teams in his bright red outfit.
updated 6:46 AM EDT, Thu April 3, 2014
Not only is she getting hitched this month, but Winter Olympics star Elana Meyers is hoping to wed her bobsleigh skills to an entirely different ball game.
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Sun March 30, 2014
Welcome to Hong Kong, where the battle to create the greatest costume is almost as fierce as the action on the pitch in the HSBC Sevens World Series.
updated 4:50 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
The annual sporting jamboree is the highlight of the social calendar for rugby fans who flock to the Hong Kong Stadium in their thousands.
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Akira Ioane of New Zealand scores a try under pressure from England's Tom Mitchell during the IRB Sevens World Series cup semi final match in Wellington, New Zealand.
His name means "bright light" in Japanese and he's already shining on the global stage. Meet the young New Zealander being hailed as the next Jonah Lomu.
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
It's the ultimate sporting world tour -- a combination of pace, power and partying through nine destinations. Discover the sevens circuit here...
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Spawned by university professors and dominated by big corporations, rugby in Japan is certainly different -- but it is also on the rise.
updated 6:11 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Many have matched his size, some his speed, but no-one ever combined the two to such devastating effect on a rugby field as Jonah Lomu.