Rugby’s man mountain Meet Premiership’s heaviest player
The young Worcester Warriors prop tells Charlie Morgan there is more to him than being the heaviest player in Premiership history
Gary Gold, the Worcester Warriors director of rugby, speaks with compelling intensity, his Cape Town tones clear and convincing. But his manner cannot prevent a slight double-take as he describes Biyi Alo as “a baby”.
Alo is, after all, the heaviest player in the history of the Premiership, having been listed on his club’s website as 143kg this summer. He insists he has now shed four kilos, to put him just behind Saracens’ Will Skelton, but, either way, there is no escaping the fact that this is one hulking prop. Appropriately enough, he has arrived at this interview direct from a team outing to Nando’s. What did he have? “Standard chicken, two sides,” comes the answer.
Alo is, however, keen to point out that there is more to him than just his bulk, and in Gold he has a coach who is happy to look beyond his intimidating frame. According to him, Alo, 23, has a good deal of development to come and will be “maturing as a tighthead” for at least two more seasons.
Fortunately, for Gold and for Worcester, Alo is both aware of the long-term education ahead and relishing the immediate fight for Premiership results.
Last Sunday’s 24-10 defeat by Wasps, which he joined after just 24 seconds following a nasty ankle injury to Nick Schonert, provided a snapshot of how tough it will be to attain both goals.
“I thought people were playing a joke,” admits Alo. “I hadn’t actually sat down. I was about to tighten my studs, then sit, chill, watch the first half. Then I had to run on. You are told to expect the unexpected, though. I wasn’t nervous or worried. I was more excited. Whatever I was going to try to do in the last 20 minutes, I had the chance to replicate over the entire game.”
Of Alo’s 14 Premiership appearances, all but three have come from the bench. From there, he likes to study scrums and arrive in the final quarter “aggressive, angry and wanting to tear into the game”. Last weekend was different. Alo lasted an hour before Ryan Bower, Worcester’s starting loosehead, switched sides to relieve him. The score was 10-10. Alo had defended well, making one muscular hit that sent Ashley Johnson sprawling.
He also scored a first-half try, the third of his 13-match Warriors career. His account of a robust pick-and-go, with a roll to finish, is amusingly self-deprecating.
“They’ve probably been from a combined distance of about six metres,” Alo says, making light of his impressive strike-rate. “We train that a lot. We call it the ‘gold zone’. A guy like me, at my size, that’s where I get to use it. I don’t know where the roll came from… I must have seen it in a movie.”
Alo also conceded four scrum penalties thanks to the nous of Wasps loosehead Simon Mcintyre, on his 88th Premiership outing. Gold, part of South Africa’s staff for the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour, offers Phil Vickery’s famous capitulation against Tendai Mtawarira as evidence of how such setbacks are occupational hazards. Alo is eager to keep gathering knowledge.
“My set-piece is a constant work-on,” he says. “Around the park, I’m good at collisions and read the game well. I back myself physically. It’s interesting. When you’re very young, you see these old guys [other props] walking around. They don’t look like the most amazing athletes. You think: ‘What is it they’re doing in the scrum?’ Then you learn more.
“You realise it’s not all about athleticism. It’s not even about who’s the strongest. You can have the biggest bench press, the biggest squat. With terrible technique, you’ll get marched back 10 metres. It’s about boxing smart. You’ve got to feel out your opponent.
“The scrum is the most confrontational part of the game. In that sense it is a battle. But you can’t go off on your own agenda and make it ‘you v him’. You learn quickly to drop your ego and work as an eight.”
If London-born Alo had any ego to drop, there is little trace of it remaining. He signed a permanent deal with Worcester in January, six months after arriving from from Saracens as injury cover. That ended a long association with his academy club and meant leaving a tight group of contemporaries – including close friend Maro Itoje – who came through the England age-grades to win the 2014 Junior World Championship.
At Sixways, he enjoys constructive chats with former Wales international Mefin Davies. Although only 2½ years older than Alo, the highly-rated Schonert has proven a fine mentor.
Two losses mean Worcester are bottom. Schonert’s injury has left Gold – who likens tightheads to “hen’s teeth” – pondering emergency recruitment.
However, Alo has been entrusted to start against Exeter tonight, a difficult test that will accelerate his growth.
Another concern for fledgling front-rowers is sheer mass. Alo, who stands a fraction under 6ft 2in, is insightful on the topic.
“It’s an eye-opener for young props because when you get to this level, you might have to sacrifice different parts of your game to be a more efficient scrummager. Personally, I’ve never been chasing up to a weight target. I’ve had more than enough, which shows in my carrying and defence.
“Losing a bit won’t be too detrimental because there are players who scrummage well at weights lighter than me – Sharky [Schonert] and Dan Cole, for example. I’ll sit down with coaches after a game. They might say: ‘Look, you need to be quicker off the ground here’. Obviously, having less excess weight will help me do that. If I’m at this weight and I’m flying around the pitch, I’m sure they’ll be fine. It’s about efficiency.”
After facing the champions, Worcester travel to Gloucester and Bath either side of a trip to Saracens. Gold puts it this way: “As the pressure gets harder, you either become a diamond or, if you are a piece of glass, you crack.”
Should Alo thrive, Worcester will have an enormous jewel on their hands.
Big chance: Biyi Alo will get a run in the side after Nick Schonert’s injury