The NFL can’t adopt rugby tackling because of that inch
In the three days since Wall Street Journal author Jonathan Clegg’s piece “What the NFL Can Learn from Rugby” hit digital newsstands, at least a baker’s dozen worth of friends and family members have sent it to me. Not because they are huge Clegg-heads, at least to my knowledge, but because until last year when I went blind in one eye#, a majority of my Saturdays each year were spent on rugby pitches sprawling the Eastern Seaboard.
I first picked up the sport my freshman year at Boston College, and it was love at first bruised orbital bone. After graduating, whenever I moved to a new city or neighborhood, finding the local men’s club was always a top priority. I even coached my former high school’s team one glorious season (I still pride myself on my halftime speeches, and I only received one yellow card for yelling at the ref all season).
However, while I do think there’s a lot the NFL can learn from rugby#, and it’s great to see that the NFL is trying to learn from its (relatively) safer cousin, there’s one major flaw with telling NFL players to start tackling like ruggers:
Football is a game of inches.
In football, to quote Coach Pacino, teams “fight for that inch.” They “claw with their fingernails” for that inch. Because they know when they add up all those inches, that’s going to be the difference between winning and losing.
But in rugby, we don’t care about those inches – and that’s what Clegg’s otherwise great article forgets to mention.#
Not to get too inside-
baseball rugby, but during a rugby match, play doesn’t stop when the runner is tackled like it does in football. Yes, the runner has to let go of the ball once he’s down, but the ball is always live. That means when you get tackled, the best way for your team to keep possession of the ball is if you go to ground in a way that gives your teammates running up behind you a good chance of sealing off the defending players sprinting up to snatch it away#.
By the same token, if you’re the tackler, giving up a few extra inches to a ballcarrier in order to better position your team for the next play is not just acceptable but encouraged.
If you’re the tackler, you actually love when the ballcarrier fights for some extra inches because that puts the ball closer to your teammates and not his (see: 1:04 in the video above for an example). That is why rugby players are coached to tackle by getting low, leading with their shoulder, and putting their heads behind the ballcarrier (cheek-to-cheek as we cheekily like to say); it’s the best technique for using the ballcarrier’s leverage against him in order to produce a desirable post-tackle play for your team.
It is not, however, the best technique for ensuring the minimum amount of yardage is gained. So when you hear about teams like the Seahawks and Buckeyes getting instructed on the “superior, safer” rugby technique, that’s not really the case.
Yes, when rugby defenders especially stick it to a ballcarrier, it can look like this:
But this is really how a large majority of rugby tackles look during a match:
In fact, what football players and coaches are calling the ‘rugby technique’ is actually the same technique that football safety commissions have been dancing around since at least 1976.
Sure we have plenty of bone-crunching, light-em-up, knock-them-flat-on-their-ass hits in rugby (just check out this video that made my mom cry when I first sent it to her), but any rugby coach worth a damn will tell you that those big hits aren’t necessarily good rugby plays#. Really, they’re just examples of ruggers acting like football players.
While it’s great that NFL coaches are starting to realize something has to change when it comes to player safety around tackling, and rugby — one of the fastest growing sports in America — could always use the publicity, the fact is that football players are taught to fight and claw and die for every inch.
We rugby players, though, would rather just have the ball back; please, and thank you, and see you at the bar after the game.
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