American football has become a popular topic in New Zealand's professional rugby ranks.
Among the All Blacks' northern tour squad late last year a dozen of the players jumped at the chance to attend the match between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium in London.
Like excited fanatics, they gathered outside the team hotel in Kensington dressed in the official team jerseys of their favourite sides.
No doubt enthusiasts like Cory Jane, who fancies himself as a safety in another life, will be watching the NFL playoffs closely in coming weeks.
Jane reckons many of the All Blacks often talk about which position they might play if they were to give rugby's oval ball cousin a try and whether they would be fast enough and strong enough to foot it with the super athletes they watch on Monday Night Football.
Ten years ago such comparisons would have been fanciful.
The NFL has always been a land of giants.
Many will remember William "The Fridge" Perry, of Chicago Bears fame in the mid-1980s. Back then he weighed 210kg and benched 211kg in the gym.
Fast forward to now, and recently retired Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Larry Allen has since recorded a single lift bench press of 318.2kg, while Carolina Panthers guard Justin Geisinger did 43 repetitions at 102.3kg in the NFL's "as many as you can" challenge.
They are simply staggering numbers.
But while it's impractical and unlikely that rugby props will ever grow to such mammoth proportions, the athletic comparison of an NFL superstar and an All Black has never been closer.
Jonah Lomu may have been the prototype, rumoured to have been chased by the Dallas Cowboys after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but his size and strength are becoming commonplace in the All Blacks' ranks.
No-one knows this better than long-time All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill.
His current stable includes the hulking frames of Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Isaia Toeava and Brad Thorn.
Gill's been involved for the past decade in designing programmes to allow optimum performance on the field and perhaps it's no coincidence that he's cradling a giant plastic bottle of the muscle-building product Creatine as he sits down to discuss the advent of the "super athlete" in rugby union.
"When I started 10 years ago the rugby players couldn't tolerate the training because they would just fall over," he explains.
"They had no training history, no background. Now we have athletes that have four, five, six, seven years of training behind them before they get here and they can handle it and can start producing better performances.
"That's the difference. Guys are getting educated a lot earlier in New Zealand. Our high performance programme and development programme through the country is producing kids with great knowledge, great work ethic and great habits.
"If they are motivated they now have the tools to go on to become better athletes."
And bigger ones.
"If you look at our backline now, the trend over the last, I don't know, 14 years, since we've been professional, the average-size backs would have been 85kg. Now our backline averages about 100kg and they are running faster.
"The loose forwards around the country are quicker than they've ever been. Adam Thomson, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, they are extremely explosive.
"Read has an impressive build, he's big, and over 10 metres is very impressive. How would our guys match up over there with the same training? I'm not sure, but we are getting closer to a true professional sport."
A COMPARISON of similar positions proves the size differences are minimal for the most part between an All Black and an NFL player.
Gear (1.88cm, 100kg), Nonu (1.82m, 104kg) and Williams (1.91m, 108kg), for example, are similar in speed to an NFL running back.
Take Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, at 1.78m and 96kg. Dallas's Felix Jones is 1.78m, 99kg, Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1.78m, 102kg.
The wide receivers are smaller still. Danny Amendola of St Louis is 1.80m, 84kg, similar in size to Jane (1.83m, 91kg), while Santonio Holmes of the New York Jets is 1.80m and 87kg.
Tightends are bigger – John Carlson of Seattle, 1.96m, 113kg, similar to Anthony Boric (2m, 113kg) or Jerome Kaino (1.96m, 109kg) – while Jermaine Gresham of the Cincinnati Bengals is 1.96m and 118kg.
Sprint times have closed too.
The NFL record for the 40m dash stands at 4.24sec, a mark shared by Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Rondel Melendez in 1999 and running back Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans in 2008.
Rugby is not great at providing such stats, but Sosene Anesi is said to have posted the fastest 40m recorded in New Zealand rugby with 4.53sec, while Joe Rokocoko once clocked 4.66sec.
Legends abound about Lomu's pace, but he did clock 10.8sec over 100m when he was at school, not quite as quick as Rokocoko at 10.66sec, or Bryan Habana's 10.4sec.
Gill believes Polynesians provide a unique genetic set for contact sport, but is unsure if rugby will ever match the African American gene pool for pure speed.
"With the genetics you get probably a greater number of fast twitch fibres, longer Achilles, smaller calves, bigger gluts, so you are a born runner.
"If you watch the game, where they are quick is in changing direction and accelerating. The running backs are very quick off the mark, and have very good stepping ability."
HE DOESN'T want rugby players getting as big as the NFL's behemoths, the offensive and defensive linemen or left and right tackles.
"Those guys benching 200kg plus are massive men, they will be weighing 150kg themselves, so they are big, big boys, so they are closer to an Olympic power-lifter. When you see a photo of them after they celebrate they are jumping two metres in the air. These big, fat, unassuming athletes can create huge amounts of force very quickly, so they can run very fast for 10 metres.
"It [tackling them] would be like being hit by a truck. The difference is they are powerful with huge mass. How big you are and how fast you can move that body creates momentum."
Such short efforts would be no use to a rugby side, but Gill says the increasing size of rugby's professionals is bringing the game closer to the NFL.
"In a collision it is the quicker you can move your body. When there are two guys the same size the faster one is the one who will dominate the collision.
"That's where rugby is headed. What's changed is we have guys running fast but they are 15kg heavier.
"They aren't necessarily quicker, but the collision is that much more significant because there is more size running the same speed."
Where the two sports differ most, however, says Gill, is in their training techniques, with rugby requiring a far greater aerobic component.
"I was at the Denver Broncos this year and how they train is completely different to how we train. You say they post some impressive numbers, but that's because they are training specifically for that one thing.
"What I mean by that is, for example, the furthest they ran in a week was 1km. They do 10 100m sprints the day after a game and that's it. That's their conditioning.
"The philosophy, which is different to ours, is that their athletes might do 50 to 60 five-second tasks in a game, so it's all maximum anaerobic explosiveness, and that's over four hours.
"So it's all about one-off efforts. Ours is explosive efforts repetitively without rest so you are not going to reach the same levels of explosiveness.
"It's a different training hence different numbers, but have we got a level where we have similarly professional athletes? Yes, we are getting close."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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