by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In our country, boys are taught at a young age how to tackle while playing Pop Warner football. As players transition from football to rugby, they rely on their football tackle technique to make defensive plays in a match. This creates a coaching opportunity teaching safe and effective rugby tackle mechanics.
Each July, during our summer rugby camp, players will run full speed at a tackle bag and dive just before contact. These players give little thought to their footwork or which side of the tackle they have positioned their head. The tackle can be divided into five different sequential phases. Each phase is of equal importance when making a tackle. The following is the teaching progression we use.
To be a successful defender, the tackler must purposely close on the attacker. If you sit and wait for the attacker to run at you it provides the attacker too many advantages.
The Set Up
During the set up the tackler may chop their feet to be in a stable position and thus under control. To close well and not be under control of your momentum means you will risk not making the tackle. A critical element of the set up is positioning yourself to make your last step correspond to the shoulder with which you will tackle.
This strike is defined by a meaningful shoulder strike and corresponding step. The greatest amount of power generated by the tackler is when a player strikes and steps using the same side of their body. The tackler’s head will therefore be BEHIND the ball carrier, not across the front of the ball carrier’s body. The tackler’s head must always be UP as well during the strike phase. “Head Behind – Head up”. This means a right shoulder tackle calls for a deliberate last step toward the ball carrier with the right foot (head is on the left side of ball carrier with eyes looking up). If we were to make a left shoulder tackle, we would want to adjust our footwork during the set up phase to assure our last left step is placed almost on top of the left foot on the attacker, therefore our head is now on the right side of the ball carrier. The best strikes are those when the shoulder strike and last step of the defender happens simultaneously.
The biggest difference between a football tackle and a rugby tackle these days is the wrap. In our sport it is illegal, not to mention ineffective, to not wrap when making a tackle. Once we have learned the close, set up, and strike, the wrap becomes the next most important element. If we are making a left shoulder tackle, using a purposeful last left foot step before the strike, our head will always be up and behind the ball carrier to the right in this example. The wrap will take place immediately after the strike as we use our left arm to wrap around the waistline of the ball carrier. Conversely if we are making a right shoulder tackle, the strike and wrap will be executed using our right shoulder and arm.
After you have completed the first four phases, the finish can become a notable moment in a match. Key to a good finish is leg drive by the tackler. It is common for a tackler to stop their feet once contact has been made with the attacker, but if we are to become proficient tacklers, our legs need to come alive as we drive the ball carrier back towards their own tryline as you take them to ground. Do not lift the ball carrier off the ground as that makes the tackle a potentially dangerous and illegal situation.
The best tacklers are players who train their core skills, like tackling, on a regular basis. It is no different than a baseball player taking infield grounders or a basketball player shooting lay ups. Train this progression at slow speed, perfecting the footwork and timing. Being known as a player who tackles everything is a great way to be referred to as a player.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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