Training Rugby Athletes
Breaking Down the Sport of Rugby
The sport of rugby has been played since the 19th century. It’s known as an extremely competitive contact sport that attracts athletes of all sizes and body types. There are two main ‘versions’ of rugby; 7s and 15s. The differences are the number of players you’re allowed to have on each side of the ball (7 vs. 15) and the duration of the game (two seven-minute halves in 7s vs. 40-minute halves in 15s). There is a 2-minute half-time in sevens compared to a 10-minute half-time in 15s. The players categorize as either a forward or a back. In short, forwards are more stalky and brute while backs are fast and agile. Think of your football mid and skill players. The game of sevens allows five substitutes instead of eight in 15s. Each style of game requires different energy demands since there are either more or less players on the field and duration of match play. There are no field dimension differences for each style of play.
Rugby demands intermittent, high-intensity movements companied heavily with qualities of maximal power, strength, and bouts of light aerobic activity (1,2,3,4,5,6). Each player must be able to perform high-speed anaerobic movements and be able to endure high-force collisions; all while making concise decisions to advance their team to the oppositions try line or goal post to score points (2,4).
Essentially, players must be able to sprint, move laterally, backpedal, change direction, catch, throw, tackle, and kick. You may be thinking, “How in the heck will I be able to check off all these boxes?!” I won’t be giving any secret recipe for training rugby players, but my goal is to help you better understand the game so you can program and lead a group of young men or women to the pitch successfully. In order to properly design a program, you must first understand the sport being played. We will briefly go over the two versions of Rugby and their unique aspects. Keep in mind many Rugby players compete in both games depending on the time of the year.
We’ve briefly mentioned the outline of Rugby 7s but let’s dive deeper into the key differences from 15s. 7s has three forwards and four backs, the pace of the game is much faster, the duration is much shorter, and there is a lot more open space to maneuver. Because of this, you need to be more reactive and agile in this game. You’ll notice that in Rugby 7s (and 15s for that matter) a large aerobic base is needed, however, players still need the capacity to break-away at high speeds and chase down opponents as well as the ball. They also need to be able to tackle, shed tackles, ruck, and even lift other players in the air.
In a study conducted by Suarez-Arrones et al. in 2012 it was found that players covered an average of 1,580.8 ± 146.3 m per game (within 14 minutes). Over this distance, 34.8% was spent standing/walking, 26.2% jogging, 9.8% cruising, 15.5% striding, 5% high-intensity running, and 8.7% sprinting. Average maximal sprints were around 29.5 ± 11.7 m. Average heart rate reported from this study was 169 ± 4 and 173 ± 6. Max heart rate was at its highest around ≥190 bpm. This gives you a pretty good idea of the high intensity nature of Rugby 7’s.
Rugby 7s players are more likely to sprint short to moderate distances (40-60m as opposed to their 15s counterparts. The average number of sprints reported (speed >20.1 kph) were approximately 7 per match. Work-to-rest ratio values are much lower than reported in rugby league studies, mainly because of less stoppage in play. On top of a large aerobic base, a rugby 7s player needs short sprint training (≤20 m) while not neglecting longer distances (40-60 m). Interval training will be of high importance when conditioning for the sport, and we’ll touch on this more below.
It’s important to note that many players transition from 15s to 7s even at the highest level and many players play both. Rugby 7s were added to the Olympics in 2016, and this shift has almost demanded for players to become more highly skilled and extremely fit to play the game.
Rugby 15s (Union)
The game of 15s is an 80-minute game in total (not including halftime) and more based on strategy. Players on the field are divided into eight forwards and seven backs. As we mentioned above, a large aerobic base is needed to play the sport of rugby. As compared to 7s, more collisions will occur during the game and players will cover much larger distances (1,2,4,6).
In a study conducted by Garrett Coughlan et al., GPS units were strapped on each a forward and back in a professional Rugby Union match. Total distances recorded for the forward were roughly 6400 m and the back roughly 7000 m. The forward had fewer standing/non-purposeful movements, more impacts, and higher total body loads. Players completed close to 75% of the total match distance in lower intensity activities (standing, jogging, walking). The back received higher severe impacts than the forward likely because of their higher velocities. The forward had a total of 838 impacts and the back had 573 impacts. Even though in this study the players cover a very large distance, most of the distances were at lower intensities.
In conclusion, 15s is a much longer game filled with more collisions and mush greater distances traveled. More of the game is played at low intensity, but due to the strategic nature players need to be ready to produce extremely high forces in order to tackle, ruck, and evade. The game of 7s is much more fast paced and usually lends itself to smaller and more agile athletes.
The main responsibilities of the forward players are to gain and retain possession of the ball. These players are usually larger and stronger and take part in the scrums and line-outs. Forwards play a pivotal role in tackling and rucking opposing players. As we saw in previous studies, forwards make more frequent collisions and don’t cover as much distance as backs, however their distances covered are still notably large. These players are referred to as the ‘pack’.
The role of the backs is to create ways for scoring opportunities. They tend to be smaller, faster, and more agile than the forwards. They also require more skill in that they need to be able to handle the ball well and potentially kick when needed. Backs cover a large amount of distances and reach higher top speeds than the forwards.
Unique Aspects in the Game
A scrum is a method of restarting play in rugby once an accidental infringement occurs. Scrum involves the forward pack binding together in three rows for a total of eight players in Rugby Union and only three players used in the game of 7s. The scrum then engages with the opposing team so player’s heads are interlocked with those of the other team. The referee will initiate this process and once a solid engagement is made, the scrum-half of the team who has the advantage will roll the ball into the tunnel formed by the scrum. Players of the scrum will work together to compete for the ball by driving the opposing scrum backwards. You can predict that lower body strength and power are big factors here as well as team communication.
A lineout occurs when play is restarted after the ball has gone into touch (or out of bounds). When the ball goes out of bounds, the opposing team is awarded a lineout. A lineout is formed by players from each team lining up facing the boundary line and can be manipulated several ways. Usually, two players lift one player in the air to contest the ball that is being thrown in. The opposing team will attempt to intercept the ball by doing the same, however they cannot infringe on the other team or a penalty will be called. That one player being lifted will jump as high as they can to contest for the ball. A lot of core strength is needed for that player to remain upright in the air.
Rucks will ensue directly after a tackle is made. A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team bind onto each other with the ball on the ground over the player who was just tackled. The purpose is to either keep possession of the ball or take possession of the ball. The player who was tackled forms an imaginary “gate” with their body. Their rearmost foot and the hindmost teammate in the ruck form this gate. Opposing players who wish to join the ruck must stay within this gate or a penalty could be called. To gain possession of the ball, the opposing team must drive the other player(s) through this gate and scoop the ball.
For a sport that frequents tackling and rucking, injuries are bound to play a large role. It is known the game of rugby produces the most injuries reported in a team sport (7,8). This is another hurdle when having to program design and implement the best possible training regimens. Most studies support that playing injuries occur in tackles (7,8). Muscular injuries were the most common type of injury while the most frequently injured site was the head and neck region. Forwards were shown to have a higher injury rate than backs more than likely due to more bodily contact (8). The game is unpredictable, so various injuries can and will occur.
Head and neck injuries are very common in Rugby. This makes sense due to the high levels of contact, the positioning required in scrums, and the commonly weak musculature of that region. Knowing this is a problem-area for many rugby players, placing some direct neck exercises into the training program can help to mitigate the chance of this type of injury. We commonly perform our direct neck exercises 1-2x per week and commonly use a partner to provide the resistance.
Shoulder injuries are also very common due to the high amount of contact in the sport. In an attempt to combat this, our athletes will perform pre-hab exercises in either their warm-ups or cool-downs during training sessions. We also implement x1-2 shoulder stabilization exercises in our pre- and post-work (push-up plank, bear holds, etc.). We’re fortunate to have several Swiss (multi-grip) bars that we can use for pressing movements to place the shoulder in a less externally rotated or stressful position. I’ve become a fan of landmine presses recently since you must engage the shoulder girdle at the top of the movement and resist rotation. However, I’ve known coaches that will take out any vertical pushing or pulling movements during the season to reduce any irritation or impingement of the shoulder.
Now that we have a better understanding of the sport, the unique aspects, and the common injuries sustained let’s begin to dive into how we can train for this sport in the weight room, on the pitch and even evaluation tests you can potentially use throughout the year.
We begin each training session with a dynamic warm-up. After this is completed we utilize a specifically designed circuit to address common injury areas. This helps us to not only prep the body for the training program later that day, but also helps to develop some commonly weak musculature. As I become more familiar with my athletes and their training age, I will begin to advance and alternate their warm-up routines before a resistance training session.
After our movement prep, we move into the meat of the training session with a barbell complex and add in some rapid or plyometric movements to stimulate our nervous system such as med ball tosses or slams. Our first core lift will be our power/explosive movement such as a hang clean, trap bar jump, or push jerk. I usually control our main lifts with a turnover time, meaning I will signal when the first set begins and ends, and so on. We’ll move on to our next core lift such as a squat, bench, or RDL depending on our focus and usually pair it with a plyometric (power focus), antagonist movement (strength focus), or core movement to combat time. I’ll have a block or two of accessory movements at the end that they will complete at their speed and cool-down or post-work exercises to follow.
I think it’s important to keep training simple when it comes to the weight room. Many of the movements are the same when training young to professional athletes. Now, how we load and advance them is dependent on their training age and time of year. Even at the collegiate level athletes tend to have very low training ages. We must train for hypertrophy, strength, and power depending on the time of the year. However, teaching the basics really, really well will go very, very far.
Basics movements, for our purposes, consist of squatting (bilateral and unilateral), hinging, pressing and pulling (vertical and horizontal), and carries. I tend to focus on a total-body approach each day with each session having more of an emphasis on lower, upper, or Olympic style movements. I’m lucky to get three days a week with my team in the off-season, and if so I’ll do some form of total-body and knee bending each day. I’ve begun off-season training with EDT (escalating density training) to stress the aerobic energy system while also getting us back in the groove of resistance training. The off-season is a perfect time to stress the aerobic system and focus on your hypertrophy and strength needs while hammering down those basics.
We understand that being in-season will create fatigue. It’s important and challenging to understand this when training a sport as demanding as rugby. If we’re in-season and we have two days of training in the week, I’ll be sure to place our max effort/strength days as far away as competition as possible. The session closest to competition will emphasize explosive movements (Olympics, trap bar jumps, sprinting, plyometric, throws, etc.) to prime the nervous system to fire as fast as possible and mitigate fatigue. When I program for in-season training, I always keep in the back of mind that less is more.
You’ll have athletes with injuries out of your control, but our job is to try to keep them on the field as best we can. When dealing with athletes with low training ages, we need to recognize that higher volume training could be detrimental in-season. However, do not shy away from the task at hand when in-season. It’s still very important to increase strength and power levels as competition continues. I have discovered the importance of listening to your athletes as well as recognizing their body language during the week.
Energy System Development
In the studies referenced above, it was stated that the game of rugby calls for maximal strength and power with bouts of aerobic activity (1,2,4,5,6). It’s intermittent in nature and demands players to create high levels of speed while being able to recover as quickly as possible between sprints (1,2,3,5). Don’t look past developing their aerobic system. It’s easy to overlook, but rugby players need aerobic capacities from moderate to high to allow them to play the game for potentially 80 minutes (2). You can use long-slow distance training (running for 20-30 min continuous), low-intensity interval training, and/or team runs. How you decide to program this within your team’s schedule is dependent upon the calendar year and their current practice demands.
We understand the importance of a dynamic warm-up, but when preparing your athletes to sprint, run, or change direction (any type of running really) don’t slack on implementing running mechanic drills after your general dynamic warm-up. I’ll spend about 10 minutes with basic running mechanics (A-skips, lateral bounds, high knees, etc.) that will include several short sprints toward the end to further prime our athletes. It can be a sneaky way of getting some sprint work in before practice or these training sessions.
I tend to prescribe interval training into my programs with various distances, intensity, and rest intervals. Again, it depends on what you’re working towards as a stimulus. We want to build our aerobic system at the start of the off-season, then progress to our glycolytic system, and begin to emphasize our speed and power closer to competition. We will not totally forget about the other energy systems as we progress to the next one. The focus will not be as high on one energy system as it once was, but don’t completely neglect the system if you feel it hasn’t been focused on during practices or competitions.
Interval training is based on the concept that more work can be completed at a higher relative intensity as compared to continuous-type training. You have a bout of exercise paired with short rest intervals dependent on what energy system you’re trying to hit. View the chart below to see how you can use interval training for different energy system demands.
The work-to-rest ratio is a critical component when programming for your team. You can see for speed or maximal velocity work, larger rest intervals will be used with a short amount of work since we are aiming for higher quality reps. For fast glycolysis or aerobic training, we’ll prescribe less rest intervals to create a higher blood lactate accumulation or VO2 Max. This is where running shuttles, gassers, or team obstacles/challenges can come into play. Interval training can be more beneficial than long continuous training since it can increase aerobic power and improve cardiorespiratory endurance (9,10).
I reference Charlie Francis’ high-low model when programming my energy system development and resistance training. I’ll blend my speed work with my higher intensity resistance training days so I don’t place super high stress on my central nervous system (CNS) on back-to-back days. These high-intensity days should include your lactate and change of direction work.
Work with your sport coaches on training sport-specific drills within practice that relates to the sport for conditioning sessions. As we mentioned, players will be tackling, rucking, and performing scrums many times in a match. You can blend in sled pushes, light tackling drills, or crawl variations within your energy system development days. Be sure to have a long-term plan and goal when programming these days, just as you would for your weight room sessions.
Think about what evaluation tests you would like to implement with your team that will show improvements overtime. I’m a fan of the broad jump and vertical jump for power since they are simple to set-up and perform. The yo-yo intermittent recovery test Level 1 or beep test is great for assessing aerobic capacity. For resistance training, I’ve used 1-3 repetition maximums for front squat and bench press and heavy singles for hang clean. Understand what evaluations you would like to see from your team and how they fit into your team goals.
Like many strength coaches, you will have to be strong at making quick decisions and adjusting programs when needed. As we mentioned before, the sport of rugby can be relentless, and you will encounter many times where you need to adjust your programing because of injury, fatigue, or unexpected occurrences.
It’s obviously important to understand the athletic ability of your team and what training level you’re starting at. Get good at the basics and go from there. While training can prepare you for the physical demands of the pitch, there is really nothing that compares to paying the game itself. Playing in real, unpredictable situations will make you a better athlete in any sport. In rugby, the dynamics are extremely unpredictable.
I want to address how important is to communicate with your coaching staff when programming and implementing your training regimen to their team. Proper communication will (hopefully) eliminate over-training and excessive fatigue, reducing the amount of potential injuries that could arise. This does not limit the importance of athlete communication as well. Communicate, be flexible, and understand things will happen out of your control.
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Ryan Gipson is a 2nd year Graduate Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Sacred Heart University. He will be completing his Masters Degree in Exercise Science in Nutrition and currently holds a B.S. from Appalachian State University He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA.