Rugby League and Rugby Union both involve significant physical impacts. In Rugby League, it’s easy to distinguish between the two main types of physical impacts. You're either running the ball into contact or tackling someone running the ball. In addition to the tackle situation, however, Rugby Union adds scrummaging, lineouts, mauls, and rucks. This variation in the kinds of collisions not only makes the skill set of a rugby player much more diverse, but it also means more collisions per player per match (pppm).
But rugby players still make tackles. Sometimes a lot of tackles. Loose forwards, in particular, are known for their work in this area. Some flankers will make as many as 25 tackles in an 80min game of rugby on top of around ten scrums and another 30 breakdown impacts. Add it all together, and the average loose forward on the rugby field is involved in around 80-90 "collisions" per match. Just over one collision/minute.
It's no surprise then that the players who succeed in these collisions are very often the best players on the field. But why? What makes a player successful during a collision? And can we learn how to improve rugby tackling when we're not on the field? That's what we'll examine today as we look at how strength and power impact tackling ability in rugby.
What makes a (un)successful rugby player
As we mentioned in the introduction, collisions are a huge part of the game of rugby. In semi-professional and amateur rugby, players will experience a collision every 2 minutes or so. To withstand, recover from and excel in these collisions, rugby players must train for them. This holds true for every player on the field. A talented, skillful flyhalf is a beautiful thing to have on your rugby team. But if they can't tackle, they represent a defensive weakness that a clever opposition could potentially exploit. Your flyhalf doesn't need to attend every ruck on attack, but they do need to be able to complete 1-on-1 tackles regularly and under pressure. Every player needs to be familiar with collisions.
Collisions are just as important for attacking players as for those more focused on defending. This is where your team gets across the gain line, and achieves "front-foot" ball. Players who are good in contact will get across the gain line more often, require more defenders to bring them down, make more breaks and score more tries than those players who are weak in contact.
Who is involved in the most collisions in rugby?
When we're discussing tackling, remember that this is just one sub-category of collisions. Loose forwards are involved in the greatest number of total collisions (50-70). Followed closely by the Tight 5 (40-60) and inside backs (30-50) with outside backs (20-40) and the halfback (10-20) having the fewest collisions in a game of rugby. Yes, it's important for everyone to be strong in contact. But collisions are doubly important for the forward pack and inside backs since this represents a larger portion of their in-game experience. There are also several different kinds types of rugby tackles. Sometimes you go high to wrap up the ball, and at other times you'll "go low" to get the player on the ground as fast as possible which gives your teammates the opportunity to compete for the ball at the breakdown.
Research into factors impacting tackling ability
This study, conducted by researchers from the School of Exercise Science at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane in 2016 attempted to examine the relationship between changes in tackling ability, and muscular strength and power, during a semi-professional rugby league competitive season.
The research used twelve semi-professional rugby league players who underwent a series of physical tests before, during and after the preseason period. The participants were tested for upper and lower body strength and power to establish their baselines physical characteristics. Then the rugby players were put through a series of standardized 1on1 tackling drills. ‘Tackling ability’ was determined based on video analysis of the drills with a scoring scale from total success (10) to total failure (1) in the tackle. The participants were tested again after round 15 of their season with results were compared to the pre-season results. What did they find? Changes in a 1RM squat and squat relative to body mass were closely correlated with changes in tackling ability.
There are three important things to takeaways from this study:
- all players in the study improved their tackling ability during the competitive season
- players with the greatest improvements in tackling ability retained or improved their 1RM squat and squat relative to body mass during the competitive season
- if you do not at least maintain your lower body strength during the rugby season, you will not improve your tackling ability as much as you would otherwise
Defining a collision based on tackle data
This ACU research was specifically focused on rugby league players and tackling ability. But the lessons learned in the study apply to rugby union and all kinds of collisions on the rugby field. We mentioned in the introduction that rugby union involves many more collisions pppm than rugby league. For this article, we should define a ‘collision’ as any impact between two players on either the same or opposing sides.
Examples of collisions in rugby would include:
- front rowers engaging in a scrum
- driving a teammate through contact by latching on their hip
- cleaning out an opposing player at a ruck
- tackling a ball carrier
- taking the ball into contact
It’s our contention that the ACU research into tackling ability applies equally to all collisions. Therefore, the lessons learned about the maintenance of lower-body strength and power during the season should be considered critical for developing training methodologies for amateur players. E.g. if a player’s tackling ability will increase faster when they maintain or improve their lower body power during the season, athletic trainers should design programs that prioritize lower-body power development. One such program is our rugby leg workout for power, which if performed once per week during the rugby season has the potential to maintain or improve an athlete’s lower body power.
Physical attributes for successful collisions
Despite very specific research in recent years, it seems to be difficult to pin down exactly what the most important physical attribute would be if you were creating the perfect collision machine. In consideration of Strength, Acceleration or Power, all three physical abilities show a correlation with tackling ability. For example, in their 2015 study Speranza, Gabbett, Johnston, and Sheppard showed that upper-body power was a key factor in predicting tackling ability, most notably in 1st-grade rugby league players. However, this research only took a single data point, during the preseason and did not reassess the same players later in the season.
Whereas in their 2016 study of tackling ability over a whole season, upper body strength was not correlated with tackling ability. From the study: "The results of this study suggest that improvements in upper body muscular power do not play a significant role in eliciting improvements in tackling ability in semi-professional rugby league players."
What do we know about collisions from tackling research?
- Upper body power might be important for other areas of Rugby. But it doesn't appear to have an enormous impact on tackling ability when considered in the context of a full rugby season
- Acceleration over 10m is an excellent indicator of tackling ability at any time during the season
- Lower body strength is the most important factor for determining, maintaining and even improving tackling ability during a rugby season
- If your lower body strength does not improve during the rugby season, you are less likely to improve as a tackler
Physical testing for collisions
Based on this research into tackling, if rugby players are seeking to maximize the benefits of their training, they should seek to improve their lower body strength and power during the rugby season. In particular, amateur players and coaches should consider testing the following on a regular basis to ensure maintenance of lower body strength and power:
- Acceleration over 10m
- 1RM squat
- Squat compared to body weight
- 1RM bench press
If an athlete sees declines in any of these standard tests, there is a good chance their tackling ability will suffer as a result.