September 15, 2015


What the NFL Can Learn From Rugby : As the World Cup begins in England, more football coaches stateside look to rugby to improve tackling (JONATHAN CLEGG, Sept. 15, 2015, WSJ)

How rugby players have developed into the premier practitioners of tackling has nothing to do with how hard they hit or how gleefully they seem to hurl themselves at opponents. Rather, the dynamics of the game have elevated the tackle into rugby's most critical element. Though both games involve accumulating territory by running and kicking a ball, rugby differs from football in that there are few stoppages. A series of play can last for several minutes without a pause and every player must play both ways as teams seamlessly switch from offense to defense with no substitutions.

The upshot is that a missed tackle in rugby doesn't merely surrender a few yards or a first down. It can force a team to "be on defense for another five minutes," says Rex Norris, director of football at Atavus, a Seattle-based company that works with the Seahawks and Ohio State on rugby-tackling techniques. "Just one missed tackle can transform an entire game."

While football evolved into a downhill game of pulverizing collisions at the line of scrimmage, laws forbidding the forward pass meant that rugby developed as a game of lateral movement. To find holes in the defense, teams must switch the ball quickly from one side of the field to the other, meaning tackles are rarely delivered head-on. Defenders must corral opponents from every conceivable angle. "It's a different way of defending," said Tom Youngs, a member of England's squad for the upcoming World Cup. "In the NFL, they're all set up to [tackle] whereas I may be wide or in different positions. We have to be better defenders in space."

They're also expected to tackle more often. While an average of 89 tackles were made in NFL games last season, top-level rugby games like those in the World Cup produce an average of 221 tackles per game, according to a 2011 study by the British Journal for Sports Medicine.

The importance of tackling means rugby coaches don't merely devote portions of every training session to tackling drills, says Ireland national team player Dave Kearney. They have also subjected the tackle to the sort of exhaustive analysis that football coaches have spent decades pouring into the passing game. Rugby coaches say the simple act of taking a ball carrier to the ground can be divided into six sub-categories, ranging from a textbook "profile tackle," in which the defender makes contact with the near pectoral region of the ball carrier, to "smother tackles," where two players combine to bring down a runner.

What these different tackles have in common is they involve leading with the shoulder, placing your head behind the opponent, wrapping them around the thighs and generally bringing ball carriers to a sudden halt. "In rugby, we break it down into six different types of tackling drills," said Norris. "I bet you if you asked football coaches how many different types of drills they do for tackling, a lot of them wouldn't even understand the question."

Posted by at September 15, 2015 5:42 PM

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