Making a comeback – what returning rugby players need to know

Returning to rugby after a long layoff can be a daunting prospect. This is especially true if you’re talking years or even decades, and not just a couple of months. Making a rugby return is an even bigger undertaking if you haven’t been exercising during your layoff. Prior injury can also add to the equation.

If you are contemplating a comeback, make sure you consider the following to ensure the entire process goes as smoothly as possible.

Returning to rugby is as much mental as it is physical. Just because you can return to the rugby field, doesn’t mean you should. Here are a few things to consider…

1. Develop a fitness base

While some rugby drop-outs manage to stay fit and healthy during their sabbaticals, others embrace sedentarism instead. Rugby was the only reason they exercised in the first place!

If you’ve gained weight, and have lost fitness and strength, you need to start rebuilding your fitness base before you lace up your boots or start thinking too hard about rugby-specific training. 

Fitness and strength coaches call this type of training general physical preparedness or GPP for short. GPP is designed to get your body ready for the demands of more specific types of training, and usually involves a combo of cardio and strength training, as well as prehab to reduce your risk of injury.

How long you’ll need to spend on GPP very much depends on your current physical condition. If you are very unfit or overweight, you’ll need longer. If you’ve stayed fit during your layoff, you might not need any GPP at all and can ease back into rugby-specific training sooner.

Our Old Boys Strength and Conditioning Program is a good plan for players who want to prepare an already fit and healthy body for the demands of rugby. At the same time, the 20-1-20 Preparation for Rugby Program is another albeit very different GPP plan.



2. Start regaining your rugby skills

Newsflash! Watching rugby from the sidelines or on TV won’t keep your rugger skillset current! You’ve heard the expression “the mind is willing, but the body is weak”? That could have been written for returning ruggers.

In your mind, you are still as fast, agile, and skilled as you ever were. The reality is that while your brain may remember, your body has forgotten the skills you need for successful rugby.

We say forgotten, but those motor patterns are still there; they are just covered in rust and dust. Once you are on the comeback trail, you should find that your skills return in less time than it took you to learn them in the first place. We often call this the phenomenon of muscle memory.

Get your rugby skills back up to speed with some solo skills training. Why solo? Training alone means you can work at your own pace, with no ego or competition to worry about. Obviously, things like tackling, rucking, mauling, and scrummaging can’t be done on your worn, by kicking, running with the ball, evasion, and numerous other skills can be. Time spent on these foundational skills means that, when you start practicing with other players, you won’t look (and feel) like a fish out of water.

Not sure where to start? Check out our free Position-Specific Rugby Skills Handbook.

3. Team practices

Having spent the last few weeks or even months building your fitness and personal skills foundation, it’s time to find a team and join in with team training. Having spent time working on your own fitness, this shouldn’t be a shock to the system.

However, while you should be fitter and stronger than you were a few months ago, you will have lots a very specific type of rugby conditioning – the ability to absorb and shrug off impact.

Because of this, it’s crucial that you take it easy at first and don’t go in too hard, too soon. If you do, you run the risk of getting banged up and even injured. You can find some useful information on training for rugby impacts in this article.

Make sure you also choose a team or division that’s right for your current level of ability and conditioning, and not based on your past glories. This may mean playing with a novice side for a few months, or the B-team instead of the A-team for a while. Don’t worry; given your previous experience, you’ll soon progress through the ranks.

4. Be patient

Returning to rugby after a long break shouldn’t be rushed. It’s a tough sport that’s even tougher if you are out of shape, unaccustomed to the knocks, are coming back from injury, or are just a few years older. Trying to rush your comeback could cause serious problems.

Instead, set a series of realistic and achievable rugby-related goals and then work at knocking each one off over the coming weeks and months. For example, don’t try and win your place back on your old team before you’ve even attended your first team practice in five years!

Instead, take a long-term view and work slowly and steadily toward achieving your goals. Rushing back too soon could actually end up costing you more time if you get injured. Your patience will pay off in the long run.

How do you know if you are ready to return to competitive rugby? Here is a questionnaire created by scholars at Springfield College to determine your psychological readiness to return to competitive sport after a layoff.

Complete the following questionnaire and then add up your score. If you score 500-600 points, you should be ready to get back in the game.

QUESTIONSNo confidence in my return to sportModerate confidence in my return to sportComplete confidence in my return to sport
1. My overall confidence to play my sport is:050100
2. My confidence to play my sport without pain is:050100
3. My confidence to be able to give 100% effort is: 050100
4. My confidence to not think about injury when playing is: 050100
5. My confidence in the ability of my body to be able to handle to demands of playing again is:050100
6. My confidence in my skill level is: 050100

20-1-20 PROGRAM


5. Be honest - is a comeback is a good idea?

If you gave up rugby for a specific reason, before you even make your comeback, ask yourself if returning to the sport is actually a good idea.

For example, if you didn’t have the time or energy to commit to regular rugby training, do you have more time on your hands now? If you quit because of injury, has your injury healed sufficiently, or is it waiting to cause the same problem all over again?

While you might want to make a rugby comeback, it’s important to consider the long-term impact of your return – both on yourself and your family.

Also, will you be able to play a level of rugby that makes you happy? Or have you lost more than a few steps during your layoff, which means you will have to settle for playing at a much lower level than you did before?

A lot of athletes who come out of retirement end up wishing they didn’t. They realize that they only remembered the good things about their sport, such as the team camaraderie or the elation of winning and have forgotten all the negatives.

In rugby, those negatives include injuries, training sessions, time spent traveling to away games, and almost constant soreness during the in-season. You’ll also need to commit a lot of time to recovery, eating right, and other rugby-related activities.

We’re not saying that a comeback is a bad idea – it’s great to see able-bodied ruggers returning to the game and sharing all their past experience to new players. However, for some, making a comeback might not be the smart or healthy thing to do. Maybe consider coaching instead of playing, or taking up touch rugby instead?

6. Know when to quit – again

Whether your comeback is successful or otherwise, at some point, it really will be time to hang up your rugby boots and retire for good. It might be because of accumulated wear and tear, a significant injury, or the simple realization that you can no longer play at the level you want to. Whatever the reason, it’s important to recognize when quitting is smarter than playing on past your personal expiry date.

Giving up playing does not have to mean leaving rugby altogether. Your team will probably welcome you as a knowledgeable member of the coaching staff, and younger, less experienced players can learn a lot from you.

It’s always better to quit when it’s your choice than be forced to quit because of circumstances that are beyond your control, and whoever said “winners never quit, and quitters never win” was clearly NOT a rugby player. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor.

Coming back from a prolonged layoff won’t be easy, but the potential rewards mean your efforts could pay off handsomely. But comebacks shouldn’t be rushed, and in some cases might not even be a good idea. Use the information in this article to determine if you should come back, and how to make sure your comeback is as successful and enjoyable as possible.


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.