In professional rugby union there can be over 250 contact situations per game; this includes tackles, rucks, mauls and scrums. The obvious aim of these situations is to achieve the most successful outcome for your team, therefore the ability to manipulate your opponent by understanding the positions where you are strong, where they are weak and vice versa will clearly influence this. Today I’m going to share with you some wrestling drills for rugby that will help you to do that.
Momentum and consequently mass and velocity are still of primary importance; rugby is a collision sport and a big, fast player will always be fairly effective on the field – for as long as their conditioning allows them to reproduce fast, powerful movement. However once the initial collision has been made, mass and strength have less influence, which is why having the skill to understand your opponent’s and your own body and how each can manipulate the other is especially important.
As mentioned in a previous article, movement is a skill and it doesn’t matter how strong you are (how much force you can produce) if you don’t understand how to apply that force effectively. I learnt this the hard way during my first introduction to freestyle wrestling; at upwards of 100kg I was completely dominated by a guy who weighed around 60kg – this in fact sparked my interest and subsequent focus on freestyle wrestling as I realised that years of working on my strength and power had been nullified effortlessly!
Based on the prevalence of these situations in a game of rugby, far too little time is spent improving these skills. This may be for lack of understanding on the part of the coaches in how best to teach the techniques or it may just be that they’re overlooked, as traditionally they are rarely included in the preparation of rugby players.
As anyone who has played or plays the game knows, contact situations can often be the most taxing you will face on the field. Improving your skills in contact can mean you work a lot more efficiently, so you have more energy to apply in subsequent contacts or in other activities throughout the game.
I believe learning wrestling as a discipline in its own right will have the best carry over for an individual wanting to improve their rugby. Spending time on learning the fundamentals of wrestling – balance, leverage and stance (centre of gravity and how it affects defence and attack), allows you to find the situations in a game where you can apply these principles.
Having said this, many do not have the time to attend wrestling sessions around their rugby training – sessions can be 90 minutes to 2 hours long and are usually very tough! Professional players in particular could not afford to add such gruelling training to their already full schedules. Pure wrestling sessions can also pose a high injury risk – especially to older athletes, that are less flexible and don’t bounce anymore. Separate wrestling training is probably therefore best left to younger players (I would definitely say that wrestling along with track sprinting are probably the best supplementary sports to a young player’s development).
So in order to apply wrestling principles to senior rugby union players we need to take drills that allow them to gain an understanding of all the basic principles, whilst still posing a relatively low injury risk. These drills also need to be time efficient and somewhat rugby specific in order for individuals to be able to apply these to their game as soon as possible.
I feel that the classic ‘wrestling’ drills utilised by both technical and conditioning coaches in the preparation of rugby players are an inefficient use of time. Some examples of these classic drills:
Player 1 starts on their back, while player 2 has to keep them down, and vice versa.
Or another; player 1 is on their knees with player 2 is facing them, on ‘go’ they both attempt to wrestle the other to the ground.
Whilst these drills have some carry over and give some understanding of how to control an opponent, along with a decent conditioning stimulus for those with low wrestling skills, they are very loosely applicable and should also be very simple for the guy ‘attacking’ if they have a basic understanding of body manipulation.
Developing balance, body awareness and the skills needed to manipulate an opponent takes time and once a high level of proficiency is reached, the skills will be applied based on feel rather than conscious thought. So a lot of time must be spent working on various wrestling drills in order for an individual to become efficient with their movement and manipulation of others.
The drills I use the most with players have been ones selected for their very low injury risk, their inherent development of fundamental principles, applicability to rugby and competitive nature. I feel competition is a key part of developing an understanding of manipulation skills, as only when someone is really competing against you will you understand how hard it can sometimes be to move them, it also makes the drills a lot more fun to do.
Whilst I have developed many position specific drills, the first two demonstrated in the video below are the best place to start. These can be used very regularly and are great when added to the end of warm ups, as a final drill to prepare for contact or just to fire the players up for the session. Another great application is as part of conditioned games; when games include wrestling they are obviously much closer to the physical demands of an actual game.
As players get more efficient at jackling and holding the ball up, the skills learnt from wresting become more and more important. Especially when the resulting penalties won for the defending team can swing the momentum of a game. No matter what position the defender gets himself into, either as a jackler, tackler, or when mauling, they are never completely secure. The human body is never completely stable – there is always a weak point, through learning the principles of wrestling you will be increasingly able to find this.
Though I will be releasing specific material and running seminars in the future regarding the manipulation of bodies in rucks, mauls and tackles, spending some time focusing on the fundamentals of wrestling will serve you very well. Practice the drills in the video often and don’t forget to include basic gymnastic skills such as rolls, cartwheels and handstands. Remember: you can’t expect to control someone else’s body before you can control your own!