HONG KONG — When casual sports fans think of rugby, they often think of it as a big man’s game.
And sure enough, if they tune in to the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan, they will see many large players on the field.
There are the wide bodies, the 275-pound-or-so prop forwards like Sekope Kepu of Australia, Charlie Faumuina of New Zealand or Steven Kitshoff of South Africa.
Then there are the tall timber guys — most often in the lock position — like the 6-foot-10 Rory Arnold of Australia, his 6-foot-8 teammate Adam Coleman, or Brodie Retallick of New Zealand and Eben Etzebeth of South Africa, also both 6-foot-8, and quite a few others who look like they would be comfortable in the N.B.A.
But all of those big players lean heavily on a rather large cadre of key players who are 5-foot-9 and under.
The smallest player in the World Cup, for the third time since his debut in 2011, will most likely be Fumiaki Tanaka of Japan at 5-foot-5. Like most of the shortest players in the game, Tanaka plays the scrumhalf position, one of the two crucial playmaking halfback roles.
The scrumhalf is kind of a triggerman for the offense. He gets the ball from the forward pack after a scrum and distributes it to another back. And after a tackle when a “ruck” of two or more players is formed around the ball, he is the one who usually will dig it out and pass it to a ball carrier. In both of those cases, a low center of gravity is an advantage.
The American scrumhalf Nate Augspurger, who is 5-foot-7, said it helped for the scrumhalf to be short.
“Every time there’s a tackle, we’re able to maneuver around bodies to get into the breakdown and go down and get the ball,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a matter of being able to maneuver around tight spaces. And we can be quite pesky. We’re out there organizing, commanding and covering field spaces.”
Augspurger also pointed out his important defensive responsibilities, especially when the opponent is close to the defensive try line and pressing to score.
“I’m kind of the second line of defense,” he said. “I’ll play right behind the line, behind that first line of defense, and get down low to help keep the other team from getting too much momentum. I have to make split defensive decisions, and a lot of times you have nines taking on other nines, watching for the other team’s scrumhalf in case he’s sniping for the goal.”
“Nines” refers to the uniform number worn by scrumhalves.
Shaun Davies, Augspurger’s fellow American scrumhalf, who is 5-8, echoed his teammate’s notion of peskiness. “Defensively, I really like to hold the boys accountable and boss them around,” he said in a phone interview.
And does being short help his approach to his opponents? “Well, I might be able to get down and take their ankles out,” he said.
Canada, the other North American team at the World Cup, also has a 5-7 scrumhalf, Phil Mack, and Jamie Mackenzie, who is 5-8.
Mack, reached by phone, said the scrumhalf was usually the “spark plug” of the offense. “Your job is to keep the engine running,” he said.
One of the best scrumhalves in the game in recent years has been the captain of Scotland’s team, Greig Laidlaw. He displayed the traits of a typical scrumhalf early on, his elementary school physical education teacher Bill Johnstone told the newspaper The Telegraph.
“Greig was one of the most feisty schoolboy players I ever taught,” Johnstone said. “He was a competitor from the time he was a very wee lad. He was tenacious, courageous and loved his game. He was a great leader of the team, even as a wee boy.”
Like the best nines, the young Laidlaw showed he was destined to be a tough two-way player. “He knew he was smaller than the other boys, but he had pace and skill, and he certainly was never afraid to tackle,” Johnstone told The Telegraph.
“As a wee lad, he used to come to me and ask how I’d make him taller. I used to say, ‘Greig, I cannot make you taller, but I can make you wider and broader like a pocket battleship.’”
Davies said one of the top scrumhalves in world rugby, the one he emulates, was the New Zealand All Black nine Aaron Smith, who is 5-7. “Smith prides himself on his pass, and he’s very good at communication and always close to the ball,” Davies said. “I do like to think I’m similar.”
South Africa is bringing three scrumhalves to the Rugby World Cup who average a smidgen over 5-7. Herschel Jantjies, who recently got his first starts for the Springboks and has made an strong impression, may be the second-shortest player in the competition, at 5-5½. He is joined by Faf de Klerk, 5-7, and Cobus Reinach, 5-9.
De Klerk may qualify as one of the most nettlesome players around and has been known to tackle players twice his weight and nearly a foot taller.
Also on the South Africa squad is one of the shortest players not to be a scrumhalf, Cheslin Kolbe, 5-7, who can play wing but usually plays fullback, a position that often requires a player to catch high balls in traffic and also execute long, downfield kicks. But Kolbe also has been known to jump in behind a ruck and dig the ball out like a scrumhalf, taking advantage of his smaller stature.
It is not unusual for the player in the middle of the big front row of forwards, the hooker, to be relatively short, although usually much heavier than a scrumhalf. A couple of good examples are South Africa’s Bongi Mbonambi at 5-9 and Tolu Latu and Folau Fainga’a of Australia, both 5-10.
Being among the smallest players also seems to require a certain mentality.
“I’ve always tried to play the game fearless, because you’re always up against much bigger guys,” said Mack, of Canada. “You can’t shy away from the tackle, even when that other guy is over 200 pounds. You’ve got to have heart.”