Rugby players need speed because, as sprint coach Charlie Francis famously said, speed kills. The faster you are, the better your chances are of being in the right place at the right time – to make a tackle, to get into space and avoid the opposition, or to score.
However, rugby is not a sport of straight lines – other than those drawn on the pitch that is! It’s not enough to be fast in one direction, you need to be able to move laterally as well as forward.
If you are only fast in a straight line, you make yourself much easier to avoid and to tackle. That’s why the fastest player during track-based training sessions is not always the fastest player on the rugby pitch.
Straight line speed is undeniably important, but unless you enjoy running directly into the opposition, you need to be able to zigzag too.
The ability to change direction quickly is properly known as agility, something all players irrespective of position need in spades. Agility can be defined as the ability to turn forward momentum into lateral movement in response to an external stimulus. That stimulus is normally an opposing player but can also be because you spot an open space in which to move.
A lot of sports, including rugby, use tools called agility ladders for developing lateral movement skills. Agility ladders are lightweight grids that are used for a wide range of running, skipping, and jumping drills. Players then run through the ladder moving their feet as fast as possible. This, it is suggested, will increase agility.
However, agility ladders have one fatal flaw – they do not actually involve much in the way of lateral movement. As such, they fail to meet the main criteria for any form of effective training: specificity.
Agility in rugby involves being able to change direction all-but instantly so that you get your body into the right place at the right time. This can for offensive or defensive purposes. Turning forward momentum into sideways movement requires a lot of power and strength. You have to generate several times your bodyweight to turn your forward sprint into a side step – usually using just one leg.
If you look at someone doing agility ladder drills, their feet will be moving in fast and complicated patterns, but there will be very little lateral movement. A lot like a swan in a pond, their legs will be moving like crazy, but their upper bodies will be very stable. Do this on a rugby pitch and the opposition will be laughing their asses off as they cut you in half at the waist!
Lateral movements in rugby do not just involve fancy foot movements, you also need to move your entire body to the left or right. After all, you need to move your entire body out the way of an oncoming player, and not just move your feet. In rugby, agility is more about lateral hip movement than funky dance steps.
Because of this, agility ladder training lacks specificity. The law of specificity states that you are fit for the type of training you do. If you want to be able to turn forward momentum into lateral movement more effectively, that’s what you need to do in training. Ladder training doesn’t do this. So, as a training method, it’s very flawed.
Ladder training is not entirely pointless. Using an agility ladder can help improve foot speed, coordination, and movement accuracy. However, for developing your ability to dodge the opposition, agility ladders are of limited use.
Agility training for rugby should replicate the agility demands of rugby. That means you need to practice turning maximum speed forward sprints into lateral movements in response to a stimulus.
Rugby agility training needs to be as sports specific as possible. Like the line from the movie Dodgeball says – if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.oes
This is a near-perfect example of training specificity – as well as being hilarious!
Because strength and power are crucial for agility, it’s important that these fitness components are also part of your training program, especially in the off-season. In fact, agility training falls into the same workout category as plyometrics. An explosive sidestep is a lot like doing a squat jump in that your rapidly load your muscles and then change direction all-but instantly. Because of this, agility training is all about quality over quantity – again, not like running length after length of an agility ladder.
So, if agility ladders offer limited benefits for ruggers, what should you do instead? Here are five rugby-specific agility drills to try. Do these drills when you are feeling fresh and not fatigued. You need to apply maximum effort to every change of direction. Half-hearted efforts will yield half-assed results – the law of specificity in action again.
Rest 1-2 minutes between efforts and stop each drill when you feel you are no longer able to sustain maximal effort or your speed starts to notably drop off.
Place six cones 3m to 5m apart in a zigzag pattern. Sprint thorough the cones as fast as possible. Accelerate toward each marker and then step off the outside foot to turn toward the next one.
For this drill, place cones on the floor as shown in the diagram, 10m apart. Start at the bottom of the T, sprint forward, shuffle sideways across the top of the T and then, on returning to the centre marker, sprint backward to return to the start.
Use the same grid as above but, this time sprint around the outside of the T. Change directions to work on turning off both sides.
Place vertical ten poles in a straight line, 2-3m apart. The closer the poles are, the harder the drill will be. From a rolling start, sprint through the poles as fast as you can, pushing hard off your outside foot each time. Sprint away after the final pole to simulate charging into open space.
Place four cones in a box shape, around 10m apart. Sprint through the cones in the order prescribed, changing direction as fast as possible.
NB: Make each of these drills more rugby-specific by doing them while carrying a rugby ball, starting each drill lying on your front or back, or placing a ball on the floor between two of the cones/poles and having to bend down and retrieve it as you complete the drill to simulate regaining possession.
If practical, set up several identical drills side-by-side so that two or more players can train at the same time, creating an element of competition and urgency. This will make each drill even more sports specific.
Ladder drills have their uses, but ironically, they aren’t that great for actually improving your agility. If you need to improve foot speed, coordination, or movement accuracy, a few workouts with an agility ladder may help. But, if you want to develop rugby-specific agility, you need to sprint and change direction as you do during a match. Remember: dodge that wrench!