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The Evolution of the Rugby Player


The Evolution of the Rugby Player

The passage of time has seen many sports evolve. Few more so than rugby, where nutrition, strength and conditioning, and rule changes have all contributed to transforming the game and its players lumbering, heavyweight props to lightning quick, devastatingly-muscled enforcers.

The advancements in rugby demand players that are faster, fitter and stronger than ever before. Being large is no longer enough. Instead, rugby has evolved into a sport of hyper-fit men and women who push the boundaries of human ability.

The Rules

While it’s an unsubstantiated claim, common folklore has the history of rugby dating back to 1823 when William Webb Ellis apparently disregarded the rules of football to pick up the ball and run with it. Hailing from Rugby, the game developed as a result of hundreds of years of ball games played in the area which involved tackles and permitted ball-carrying as long as players didn’t run forward.

In 1863, 11 schools and clubs met to develop the official game of Rugby, separating it from football forever. In 1870, Edwin Ash of the Richmond Rugby Club invited 22 clubs to a meeting to standardise the rules and the Rugby Football union was created.


Rugby players eat better than ever, thanks to the professionalization of the sport and the knowledge and support that elite athletes have. Now that the emphasis is on athletic performance rather than brute force, players have tailored nutrition plans that see them eating better to help them perform.

Protein Intake

The RFU recommends players consume 2.2-3g of protein per 1kg of bodyweight. As protein is a muscle-building nutrient, this stat helps explain the musculature of modern players. Compared to the average male intake of 55g a day, a 100kg player will consume 220-300g of protein. That’s an incredible amount of protein that contributes to growth and performance.

Strength demands

In the past, rugby players had no yardstick for knowing how tough the sport was so there was less motivation to be fit. Now, thanks to GPS trackers, we know that players have to withstand the following conditions:

Ball in play time Distances covered

Compared to past games, where effort and intensity was hard to measure, these demands are now plain and simple and help illustrate exactly why players have had to become bigger, stronger, multi-discipline athletes.

The professionalization of rugby meant players could spend more time in the gym, increasing their size and strength through good nutrition and well-funded regimes

Average size of players

Due to these changes, players have grown immensely in size and power.

In 1994, the average size of the England team was 92.3kg and in 2014 it was 105.3kg. A 13kg, or 2 stone increase in bodyweight on average.

Bouts of high intensity effort

New Zealand over the years:

The ‘All blacks’ are regarded as the greatest team in the world. How have their players changed over the years? We look back at the size of teams throughout history:

Player sizes

Between 1947 and 2015, the average weight and height of players in the team has increased by 6.93cm and 20kg! Even in the short time between 1985-2015, there was a 2cm height increase and a 14kg weight increase – evidence of the new strength and conditioning demand on players.

The changing prop

The average All Blacks prop, usually the position reserved for the largest men, has increased greatly, with weight going up by 24.5kg since 1947.

New Zealand over the years

Effect on tackling:

The size, weight, speed and power of players is leading to increased tackling. Here are the amount of successful tackles during the RBS 6 Nations to show how bigger and stronger players are forcing the sport into an even more physical era.

The Changing Prop

In less than 10 years, the number of successful tackles has risen by 79.


As the sport has advanced and players have grown in size, there have been many changes in the game. The most devastating result of the increased physicality is the rate of concussion, which has increased heavily, a rise of 400% in the last decade.

The current concussion rate for rugby players is 10.5 per 1,000 hours, a significant rise from the 2.5 in 2002. Professional boxing, has a concussion rate of 17.5 per 1,000.

Effect on tackling

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has reported an increase in concussions in their games. During the 2012-13 season, there were 54 instances of concussion, whereas there were 86 in the 2013-2014 season.

Concussion rates

It’s clear that rugby now has a higher concussion rate than ever. Can this higher concussion rate be attributed to the changing shape of players? A 20% increase in height equates to a 44% increase in strength and a 73% increase in inertia – meaning an increase in impact.

Concussion rates Concussion rates

Through a combination of factors, such as rugby going professional and allowing players to train full time, through to a better understanding of nutrition, an intense strength and conditioning program and the natural increase in stature in humans over the years, rugby players are now bigger and stronger than ever.

Unfortunately, this seems to lead to more concussions, which begs the question – How big is too big?

Concussion rates