80 kilogram winger Jona Nareki’s ridiculous three-try performance against the Chiefs this weekend is another addition to a Cheslin-Kolbe spearheaded trend that shows up World Rugby’s complete oversight of the value of small, fast and skillful players within a “size-ist” rugby culture, writes Oliver Keohane
Cheslin Kolbe, world wide, has not been not the flavour of the month, but the flavour of the last three years. Wherever he plays, be it at fullback, wing, flyhalf or nine, in France or South Africa, he is simply one of the best backline players in the world. He is also one of the smallest backline players in the world, and possibly the first in South Africa that has ever genuinely made South Africans question the narrative that has been fiercely upheld that “bigger is better”.
But, as much as selecting size over skill is a cornerstone of conservative South African rugby, it is unfortunately the rule more than the exception in arguably every rugby playing nation. New Zealand have been perhaps the earliest in and most open to identifying skillsets in players that transcend size and add a dynamic that other teams often do not have. For me, a few come to mind. Damian McKenzie – South Africa has always struggled to defend against him from broken play and he glides between fullback and flyhalf, Sevu Reece – outstanding out wide for the All Blacks and Crusaders and even Richie Mo’unga, who at 86 kilos does not rank among the world’s heaviest flyhalves, but makes a claim to be among the world’s best.
New Zealand in 2021 is where my eyes are cast again as “the small guy” steps, swerves and his steers his team to a win.
Jona Nareki, Highlanders winger. All 80 kilograms and 175 meters of him amassed some stupid statistics as the Highlanders extended the Chiefs’ losing streak to ten games with a 39-23 win in Dunedin. Nareki’s contribution went as follows: Three tries (including an 80 meter intercept), an offload-assist for Shannon Firzell’s try, nine clean breaks, four beaten defenders and last but certainly not least in a climate that begs for running rugby – 196 running meters!
I implore readers to find some statistics, from an outside back or any position at all, that display such a complete and potent attacking performance. I don’t think it would be an easy search.
My argument is not against the value of size in a game that is by nature a brutal contest, based primarily on physical prowess. My argument is against the complete oversight of anything below 85 kilograms, and the shock that follows when that one lucky lightheavyweight is either steering your team to victory or entirely cutting them up playing for the opposition.
There needs to be a greater awareness and understanding, in South Africa and world wide, of these unique core of players who have the ability to flip games on their heads.
Watch: Nareki’s performance against the Chiefs