Football and rugby share a genealogy. Look back at the origins of the two sports, and they are distinctly alike.
Like all things, though, sports progress over time.
Rule changes. Strategy. Innovation. These elements shaped the direction the games took, eventually evolving into what we know them to be today.
Rugby doesn’t have the forward pass or downs. Football doesn’t have scrums or rucks.
Still, at their cores – their DNA levels if you will – football and rugby share traits that define what they are. Tackling among them.
Both sports revolve around athletes being able to bring other athletes to the ground. The reasons why may differ, but the techniques and fundamentals behind them are taught for the same simple reason.
“Ultimately, it’s about safety,” said Luke Gross, player development manager and specialty coach at USA Rugby.
Members of USA Football and USA Rugby met earlier this week at St. Vincent Sports Performance in surburan Indianapolis to share how the groups teach this all-player skill and see where the two national governing bodies can help one another train their coaches and players on the best ways to play and enjoy the two games.
It was the first face-to-face conversation in what is expected to be a continuing partnership benefitting both sports.
“USA Football and USA Rugby are brother national governing bodies, and we will benefit from sharing best practices,” USA Rugby Youth and High School Director Kurt Weaver said.
Football is a game of inches, of land acquisition in which an offense is rewarded for gaining 10 yards in a set of downs. A tackle signals the end of the play, and both teams line up again.
Rugby is free-flowing, and while the defense is trying to limit a ball-carrier’s yardage, the tackler also wants to be in the best position to get up quickly and resume action if the ball is still in play.
“In rugby, the tackle is not the end like in football,” Weaver said. “It’s designed to safely bring both players to the ground combined with the tackler getting up and doing something else.
“A rugby player may throw a ball-carrier forward, and that’s a great play because his team can steal the ball. In football, you just gave the other team a first down.”
Gross teaches rugby fundamentals – including tackling – to thousands of coaches across the United States. A former U.S. National Team player and a professional in England, Gross said the differences between the two sports comes down to about six inches.
“On an angle tackle, both sports teach to track the near hip,” said Gross, who played basketball at Marshall University before taking up rugby in graduate school. “In rugby, we put the head behind the ball-carrier’s hip while in football, many coaches teach head to the side. Head behind has the benefit of limiting the cutback space, but in rugby we also don’t have helmets to offer protection to the head.”
The head-behind method has supporters in football, too, USA Football Senior Director of Football Development Nick Inzerello said. Northwestern University and the Seattle Seahawks, among others, teach head behind on angle tackles.
USA Football is examining the technique and how to design best practices to help coaches teach the method. Discussions like the one this week in Indianapolis will go far in improving coaching education in both sports.
“We are always looking for ways to improve our instructional content,” Inzerello said. “USA Football works alongside leaders in football, medicine and sport to make sure Heads Up Tackling reflects the best information available. Our partnership with USA Rugby will help us bring the best information to the more than 150,000 youth and high school coaches we work with.”
Weaver and Gross both said USA Rugby will look at adapting USA Football’s Levels of Contact to more succinctly define pace and contact within practices.
“USA Football’s structural teaching method where they strip down coaching points and terminology into step-by-step, easily understandable graphics is as good as anything out there. We plan to copy that,” Weaver said. “This meeting was a great first step, and I look forward to more of them going forward.”