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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.
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