by Kimball Kjar
In the American rugby dialogue much has been made of the cross-over athlete.
There are a fair number of examples where good football, basketball or even track athletes have successfully crossed-over to rugby following strong high school, collegiate or even professional careers.
Past USA greats like Dan Lyle, Luke Gross, Dave Hodges and most recently USA 7’s sensation Carlin Isles speak to the ability of American-bred athletes being able to transition from one respective sport to the game of rugby.
And with the growth of the game here in the USA reaching before-unseen levels players crossing-over from other “mainstream” American sports will only continue to grow.
But as most coaches know it’s one thing to take a cross-over athlete and make them a flanker or a wing, than it is to take any variety of athlete and coach them to play fly half or scrum half.
Top-level American-born halfbacks are a rare breed. I know, because I’ve been there.
As an American-born scrum half myself I wasn’t introduced to the game of rugby until I was 18 and was on the USA National Team by the age of 22.
This isn’t me tooting my own horn, but rather an indictment on the current state of the game here in the United States. We simply aren’t producing enough top-level scrum halves and fly halves to complement the growth of the game and to fuel the development of our international teams in both 15’s and 7’s.
If rugby is to realize the kind of success on and off the field that we hope it does, coaches’ development of elite scrum halves and fly halves from a pool of athletic cross-over athletes will be one of the main items that this success will hinge upon.
Allow me to offer my thoughts on how to begin the process of successfully making a halfback out of a cross-over athlete.
First, one needs to identify the athletes with the right physical, mental and emotional skill sets.
Top flight halfbacks need to be poised leaders, with positive characteristics such as a solid work ethic, good communication skills and field vision and an ability to create order out of chaos. Not to mention the core skills of passing, running and kicking.
When assessing cross-over athletes I typically like to look at his or her body of work athletically, academically, vocationally and in the community.
That might seem a bit much, but in my experience leaders will always lead, no matter where or what it is that they’re involved with.
From a physical standpoint I like to also identify what sort of hand and finger dexterity a player has. So much of halfback passing comes down to how a player passes the ball, but also in how they catch and transition a ball before making a pass.
And all of that comes down to their hand and finger dexterity. It’s a small thing, but it’s a good indicator as to what sort of halfback a cross-over athlete can become with solid coaching and work.
Secondly, coaches need to speak in terms to which the cross-over athlete will understand.
It’s a common scene in American rugby where a coach or even some well-meaning rugby expatriate comes to a high school, college or club team and begin training their players in what I term “expat lingo.”
Rugby has a unique set of terms and language that are original to itself and sometimes based on a person’s country of origin the definitions and meanings of the sport get varied—e.g., fly half vs. stand off vs. first five vs. pivot, etc.
To the experience rugby mind these easily translated, but for a cross-over athlete learning rugby’s technique and strategy is one thing, but then learning in another language is no easy task.
Coaches need to remember, just because you speak the same language as your players, doesn’t mean your players will understand you.
For example, players coming from a largely basketball background will look at rugby with a different eye than a football player or a wrestler. And it’s the coach’s job to speak in the sporting vernacular to which his or her cross-over athlete is familiar with.
Training cross-over halfbacks requires an attention to detail in what and how the principles of the game or being taught. And using familiar terminology or training techniques will accelerate the time in which an athlete is able to learn the specific skills of a scrum half or fly half.
Thirdly, repetition isn’t enough.
There’s been much said about 10,000 hours of training for a level of expertise in a sport or a profession, but often overlooked is the type of hours spent in training.
When dealing with halfbacks, particularly cross-over halfbacks, coaches make the mistake, either flippantly or because they don’t know any better, to just tell the halfbacks to “do more” and then they’ll improve—i.e., scrum halves should do more passes or box kicks and fly halves should just do more kicks at goal to improve in those respective areas.
That’s not good enough to develop elite level halfbacks.
As coaches we need to take concerted time before, during and/or after our trainings to help halfbacks work on the specialized skills they need to be successful.
We can accelerate the process of player development by coupling detailed video-analysis or extra-curricular training specific to halfbacks like the Halfback Academy. But most importantly coaches need to make a specific and planned effort to train and develop their halfbacks.
Lastly, coaches need to realize the onus is largely on them to train America’s next generation of elite halfbacks.
The cross-over athlete is a naïve creature—they don’t know what they don’t know. Cross-over halfbacks can work hard on their own, but will never achieve the level of expertise that they can without a strong mentoring coach helping them along the path of their personal development.
Coaches should seek more resources and information on halfback development. Coaches should also make it a priority in their team’s development—just like they would team culture, safety, or specialized skills like lineouts and scrums.
After all, you might have a good lineout or scrum, but when you get the ball what are you going to do with it if you don’t have strong halfbacks? A good No. 9 and 10 make a big difference in the options a team has in attack.
The future of rugby in America is currently sitting on a very positive inflection point. Olympic inclusion, greater media coverage and other factors are helping invigorate the sport at all levels.
With this new excitement coaches will play a primary role in taking the growing numbers of cross-over athletes and developing them into strong rugby players. And as the game continues to grow the need for an deep pool of cross-over halfbacks will play a significant role in the game’s on-going progress.
How a coach identifies, communicates and plans the cross-over halfback’s development will determine how successful this new pool of American-bred halfbacks becomes.
Kimball Kjar is a former USA International and All-American scrum half. He currently coaches at BYU helping the Cougars to their 2009 and 2012 National Championships. Kjar founded to Halfback Academy to help develop America's next generation of top-level scrum halves and fly halves. More information can be found at www.HalfbackAcademy.com.
HAVE YOUR SAY….
What has your team done to try and teach new players the fly half or scrum half position? What more can be done to develop more high level players at this position? Get in on the conversation below.
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