Surviving as the smallest man in a game of brutal collisions? Only fools and horses scorn rugby’s riders on the storm


I was steering a maul. My posterior proud and jutting like the bow of a Viking longboat or a cart horse. My scrumhalf wanted the ball but I felt we were about to roll. His ‘whip’ was just a hand; it tickled more than hurt. But his voice could have stripped paint from a new car.

Halfbacks have supersized vocal chords: Aaron Smith starts his name with two As because, like the highest singer, a coloratura soprano, he can reach both the A note below middle C to the high A.

We have found metaphors for the forward positions of rugby: monks, mastiffs, bouncers, robbers and bears. Now, we look at those who ride the pack. The jockeys. The nines. The decision makers.

Just as the new rugby watcher remarks at the diminutive size of many scrumhalves, jockeys are remarkable in contrast to the steeds they harness. Fifty kilograms on a half-tonne horse running flat out at 65 km/h. Seventy-five kilos steering a one-tonne maul rolling.

A top jockey is just over 1.5m tall with rocky arms and legs to master their massive beasts. The average height of scrumhalves across French, English and Celt-Saffa leagues is currently 1.76 m.

Jockeys are some of the bravest sportsmen on the planet and can be either as talkative as TJ Perenara or as dour as Fourie du Preez, but over time, are prone to neuroses. Thanks to the referees’ microphones, we hear the angst of Conor Murray or Ben Youngs. The late great Joost van der Westhuizen was as ruthlessly complicated a man as ever played the game; a flawed man transformed by adversity.

If the comparison to the horse track feels off, note: Nic White already has legs fit for purpose. Also, Irish nine Peter Stringer was a dead ringer for a jockey. Too muscled up, you say? Jockeys are strong like cyclists: their grip, their core, their legs. Their 10K stamina.

Nic White of the Wallabies passes during game two of the International Test Match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on July 09, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

A jockey trains to have strong legs, core and upper body, but cannot build too much mass: muscle and bone. A scrumhalf’s pass emanates from many of the same areas: dooming the aspiring nine to years of sit-ups, band pulls, planks, and heavy balls to either side whilst on knees.

For much of a game, both genres of athlete are stuck in a rather awkward stance. Jockeys crouch in the “Martini glass” position: a delicate balance. This isolated their centre of gravity and reduced a jockey’s load on the horse; in effect an experienced jockey could actively assist a horse to run faster. The horse does not feel the load as much.

University of North Carolina researchers have described this stance as “a situation of dynamic imbalance and ballistic opportunity.” An inch or two one way or the other and they are tumbling into a life-or-death maelstrom of killer hooves.

In a little over a hundred years, jockeys using the “monkey crouch” technique, imported by the U.K. from the U.S. have improved their race times by about 6% (before the change, racehorses averaged 109 seconds per mile; ever since, that average has remained constant at 103 seconds.

How? By keeping the ‘floating’ jockey more stationary (a horse bobs about 15 centimetres per stride; the jockey 5-6 cm only). The price the rider pays: 190 heartbeats a minute like a mogul skier.

Watch old footage of a nine clearing the ball and half the time, they dove whilst passing. This mitigated how often very loose forwards captured the scrumhalf ball and all. However, it slowed the next ruck clear, and it almost never created a better pass. Now, the holy grail for nines is to pass from the deck without a big windup, legs spread with one in a crouch and the other pointed to the target.

The goal is to make the horse feel less of the jockey and more of himself.

As a young lad, I was lucky enough to get to know one of Cape Town’s most beloved and best racehorses: the grey colt Jamaican Music. A rugby coach was part of his training team and slipped me into Kenilworth track to see him win the Cape of Good Hope Nursery Futurity and go on to keep winning cup after cup. By 1976 the horse was himself a star as great as some Boks.

But in 1974, in Durban, Jamaican Music won the prestigious Durban July race without a rider at all. He had lost his jockey 350 m into it: the beautiful grey clipped the heels of a horse in front of him and ‘pecked,’ catapulting his jockey as the bit pulls. Hanging on it like clinging to a speeding bus without a handle.

No rider, no win, but Jamaican Music won the 1976 July at odds of 8-1, as usual using a late charge from the back. It was his last race.

But that 1974 race, in which he won without a jockey, still provokes debate. Is a jockey per se overrated?

Are greats like Fourie du Preez rated higher than they should be, given the quality of the ‘Bulls’ he rode? Should a battler behind beaten packs like Grieg Laidlaw get more due?

Ken Catchpole. Danie Craven. David Kirk. Justin Marshall. Gareth Edwards. Big Nick Farr-Jones. Matt Dawson. Agustin Pichot. George Gregan. The names ring out like an anthem of rugby’s statehood.

They would be the first to say they would have struggled without their packs being on top.

One common attribute of the great nines they share with jockeys is fitness.

Just to be able to get a mount, a jockey needs to be able to plank for three or four minutes and stay in a sit-up position with legs aloft for four minutes. The wear and tear is rough, but some – like Californian jockey Russell Baze has had about 50,000 races in his career; similar to the number of box kicks Faf de Klerk has launched.

Confidence is key to the long rider. A certain amount of delusion, too.

The Melbourne Cup winner in 1861 received a gold watch. Now, there is eight million at stake. Harry White won four Cups, tied for the most ever. He had a classic jockey’s life: riding as a teen, sleeping in the jockeys’ room the night before the Cup. He used his hands instead of a whip down the stretch. En route to 2,112 race wins, he lost sight in his left eye but never told anyone until he retired to a beef farm.

He had the feel.

A top rider learns the feel of a horse and knows when to push the button and not to panic; to show the horse confidence by giving him chances.

A top scrumhalf never stops feeding his pack: the ball, warnings, directions, hope, and fire.

If there is one player on the pitch who disobeys the coaches the most, it’s number nine, just as a top jockey can refuse to hold his mount back to fifth after the break.

The degree of precision required in a scrumhalf’s craft reminds us of the things a jockey and the grooms and trainer do before a race.

At Allianz last year, I watched Jake Gordon, Tate McDermott, and Nic White, a meat pie’s throw from me, pass and kick for ten minutes. It is the little things. The boom of the ball, the tightness of the spiral, the height of each action, the zip.

Tate McDermott of the Wallabies watches on as the scrum packs during The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South African Springboks at Adelaide Oval on August 27, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Tate McDermott. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

If I may sum it up, White had the loudest contact with the ball of the trio and the longest hang time, McDermott had the best feet and judgement on the catch, and Gordon the prettiest pass. Also, White was the cockswain of the group, deciding when the little things had been done well enough.

We have had Will Genia, Ian Prior and Ryan Lonergan on The Roar rugby podcast. In all those episodes, we slid into the details of passing, of game plan and strategy.

Be the smallest man on the park in a giant’s game of brutal collisions? You better have plan.

Young jockey Drayden Van Dyke puts it this way:

“I try and do all the small things right. When I come out of the first turn and if I feel the horse still on the left lead I’ll throw him over to the right lead. I’m also looking at who I’m following. Certain jockeys I like to follow more than others. I’m also looking at the other horse’s actions too. If I see one that’s starting to back up a little, I don’t want to be behind him. I start to weave my way in and out.”

It’s not a stretch to imagine Antoine Dupont thinking like this. In his Toulouse club practices, he sometimes runs lineouts. Meaning, he is lifted. He shows the lock (at nine) how he wants the ball.

He has also been on the cover of GQ in a bright yellow towel garment. He says his appearance is “increasingly important. I have my shower gel, my shampoo, my toothpaste, a matte finish wax pomade to style my hair, and a moisturiser. I spend an inordinate amount of time showering, so it’s crucial to moisturise properly.”

This is not a practice shared widely among jockeys, who tend to look their age times two.

Injury? Jockeys face death (indeed, decorated Australian jockey Dean Holland died recently after he was thrown from his horse at just 34) in every race, and those who cheat death may have broken a cervical spine, pelvis, tailbone or collarbone.

If you hit the ground, all bets are off. You have no say.

Scrumhalves have the deepest rituals. Shave, wax, eye drops, write on the wristband, pray.

They spend 60 percent of every match highly annoyed. Almost all of their irritation flows from ruck ball.

They prefer to see the letters in the right order, the G right side up.

The caterpillar suits the halfback just fine. For three, four, five gentle rakes of the ball with their size seven boots, crowd and camera are focused on them.

Jockeys have similar game days: work out the horses, cut weight, nap, read, game, do some precognition of how each race will go, and imagine which mounts will vie for the early lead.

A jockey’s dank cubicle is reminiscent of the player’s sweaty cubbyhole.

They have to be fine with crawling into dark places.

Scrumhalves spend most of their matches peering and digging and poised with a millisecond separating good kick from chargedown or clearance from being swamped by locks the size of Suffolk Punches.

Jockeys do not sit on a horse. A cowboy “sits a horse.” A jockey stoops above the charging stallion like a gaudy, silky hood ornament on a hopped up monster truck.

The entire weight of a hockey at full speed is balanced on their toes within thin stirrups.

Yes, they have reins, but it is the mane of the horse which will be their saviour if they start to fall.

Faf’s mane is his saviour, but he rides one of the meanest pack of Percherons in rugby.

Jockeys love their rides; halfbacks love their packs.

It was no coincidence when I sat with Faf and his mates in the Adelaide airport last year that his poker partners were not show ponies: it was the Bomb Squad.

“There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse,” says equine lore. Is it their soft noses, their smooth power, their lovely eyes, the ever presence of danger?

One gets the feeling nines and jockeys share an adrenaline addiction.

Imagine the jolt of the gate springing open and that big bundle of muscle in utterly perfect proportion, taking you into space, in command of all that power, but one slip away from paralysis.

Then, the chess match between these wee men: outwitting opposite numbers.

A jockey and a scrumhalf are forever squeezing foes into the wrong side of things: blinds.

A big lock and a big horse have small gas tanks, really. They are creatures of raw momentum.

Their handlers have to know when to feed runners (and who) around the corner or put a topspin kick over the top.

Van Dyke sums it up: “But you know how fast you’ve gone and, if you have any sense of pace, you know how much horse you’ve used up. You can feel it in your hands. Sometimes you can hear it in their respiration. Hopefully, they’re not lying to you. Some make you feel like you’ve got a ton of horse left and then you turn for home and pfft, nothing, the dirty lying son of a gun.”

But more often than not, it is the jockey, the scrumhalf, who cops more of the blame than the horse, the pack.

It’s not quite as hard to hold weight at 75 kg as it is at an adolescent 50 but still, the scrumhalf must stay lean even as his metabolism slows in his thirties, to arrive on time (the magic three second rule) at a hundred rucks or so as he broncos his way through a game.

White corrals the Brumbies in a particular style: they get in the right position down the home stretch even if it is not as flashy as McDermott’s sprints. Jake Gordon looks more like a laconic gunslinger in the Wild West. Lonergan has emerged as a technically on-point leader. Who will be the two-pronged jockey duo in France when the Wallabies are facing the formidable Argentine halfbacks?

You must be logged in to post a comment Login