1. Technique – closed to open environment
2. Experience and number of games played is king
3. Acceleration and lean body mass is a predictor of a successful tackler
4. Fatigue directly decreases your ability to make a successful tackle.
5. Core strength and stability better transfers force through the body into a tackle
6. Mobility allows you to get into better structural stable positions to make complex tackles.
Improve Your Rugby Tackling – A Sports Science Analysis
The importance of tackling in rugby is well-known. This is highlighted by the fact that higher performing players show better technique in the tackle and that dominant tackles affect real game outcomes. In solving this problem we must first identify what factors limit and enhance tackling proficiency. Improving tackling is an individual, specific issue. You must practice technique and work on any technical corrections you need but there are other things to consider.
The highest priority in improving your rugby tackling is to learn correct technique. From a skill development perspective you should first learn the step by step phases in a closed environment. This means where the variations are limited. When technique is perfected in a very simple environment the body has then learnt learnt the correct motor pattern which then can be adapted to slight changes in variations in the environment. For example, different running speeds or approaching angles. This should be done incrementally.
In terms of the technical elements, Coach Edd Conway, from Edge Rugby, prioritised footwork and getting the body in the optimum position. Many people fail to get their feet close enough to the attacker to make a successful attempt. I also believe that is the correct use of the arms in squeezing the legs and knees together. Many individuals do not actively squeeze increasing the likeliness of missing the tackle.
Here is a great video by South African flanker, Jacques Burger, on the point of contact and what to do after the tackle
Here Wasp’s defence coach, Brad Davis, talks and demonstrates getting the foot close and cutting the centre line of the attacker
Alongside technique is decision making and here we have Austin Healey going through some decisions made as a winger
Higher performing tacklers in the NRL are shown to have improved with age and experience. This is backed up by the finding that the better tacklers had played 150+ in comparison to players who played under 50, 50-100 and 100-150 games. This puts credit to the fact that it is not age but experience in the open environment that improves a tacklers’ performance.
A player should focus around practicing the skill over and over until it becomes autonomous, unconscious and completely fluent. This amazing feat of experience, however, can only be achieved if the player remains uninjured for long periods. As tackling contributes to 61% of all injuries that occur in rugby, individuals are at risk of being sidelined, or unable to practice, and must invest time into injury prevention.
Beyond technique and practice it has been found that more proficient tacklers were leaner, had lower skinfold thickness, were shorter, lighter and had lower body mass. They also had greater acceleration, change of direction speed and greater lower body muscular power than less proficient tacklers. This gives great purpose to the need for rugby players to perform sport specific strength and conditioning programmes in order to progress their tackling performance. In particular, looking to increase maximum strength and full body power.
Key lifts which links directly to the developing acceleration, strength and power in the tackle movement are squats, squat jumps, deadlifts and cleans. The information suggests that gaining too much size would inhibit tackling performance as heavier players were seen to be less proficient tacklers. Losing fat through a healthy, balanced diet would be a great way to improve your power-to-weight ratio. Most importantly however, acceleration and top speed sprinting can be dramatically improved through through developing technique and athletics athletes will perform technical drills for hours and hours consciously in order to improve their unconscious running technique.
Here is a great video from the fastest man in rugby working on athletics based running technique drills
The start of this video on posture provide a great explanation to body angle and keep the body in a straight line
The other component which would be much more prevalent in lower leagues is fatigue. A study around fatigue and tackling unsurprisingly found progressive reductions in tackling technique as fatigue increased – players with a greater VO2max showed the lowest decrements in their respective tackling performance. This shows the need for aerobic endurance as a high priority component to any rugby strength and conditioning programme. Tackling under fatigue could be introduced so that technique can be emphasised over strength. Be aware, however, that safety must be highest concerned so technical coaching must be of the highest quality. Oppositely, improve rugby specific fitness will improve tackling performance.
Core strength is something that all elite rugby teams work on. The relevance to tackling is that a strong stable spine and upper torso means that you can directly transfer force from the powerful legs and hips. If the core is weak, the body crumples and force is dissipated rather than directed into the tackle. For a good-level player, a minimum test requirement should be a 3 minute plank. At an elite level I would expect 6 minutes. Try the Circuits Pro beach core workout or animal flow workout which aims to connect the body through complex compound movements.
The final component, which is apparent to many individuals and is often not addressed, is mobility. If a player cannot get his body into the correct positions to make a tackle, due to a lack of range of motion at major joints, then they have failed before they have started. Not only would they fail to execute each phase of the tackle effectively, their restriction may compromise a safe neutral spine and run the risk of serious injury. The mobility of the hip is often a culprit – if you cannot squat with your hips at least parallel to your knees then you are hugely restricted in your ability to make a wide range of low tackles. Improve your range of motion at the hip, and ankle, and you will undoubtedly improve your tackling ability. See our instructional videos to help you here.
It is essential for any individual to improve the technical aspects and ensure that the components above are also addressed. Every individual is unique so may need to focus on one component over another, however, tackling technique is the highest priority to improve tackling proficiency. The key component for any individual to improve their tackling performance is to practice until the skill is completely autonomous and unconscious. To accelerate this process, an interesting prospect would be to create a safe environment, crash mats and suits, in a gym and outdoor training setting so that individuals can accelerate the amount of hours they can practice tackling. In conclusion, consider all components, improve your individual weaknesses, strength technique and practice the skill.
Coach Edward Young has had success as a strength and conditioning coach to many high-level rugby teams and elite level athletes across a range of sports. Currently training the u18 Trinidad and Tobago 7’s team he is also the director of the online training website Circuits Pro.