by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
To play your best rugby, you have got to be prepared and willing to intermittently run hard during matches. Selecting the appropriate footwear for matches plays a meaningful role in your ability to fulfil this major requirement of our sport. There is nothing worse than an ill suited or poor fitting pair of boots that makes 80 minutes feel like 80 days. In this offering, I would like to offer recommendations on firm and soft ground boots for select positions. Having made just about every mistake that can be made during my competitive career regarding boot selection, this piece is also intended to ensure that future rugby players do not fall victim to similar mistakes I have made. Additionally, I fully disclose that www.rugbyrugby.com, for whom I write for, is part of the 365 Inc. group that includes www.worldrugbyshop.com, the popular online rugby retailer.
There are two categories of rugby boots currently on the market, those designed for soft ground (SG) and those for firm ground (FG). Soft ground boots are distinguished by having metal sprigs, also known as replaceable cleats. Soft ground boots are available in two different cleat configurations, six-cleat for backs and an eight-cleat design for forwards. Although some flankers might choose to wear a six-cleat soft ground boot, the balance of the forwards should be in an eight-cleat boot when the ground is soft. The more cleats in the ground while scrummaging, or otherwise imposing your physical will on the opposition, the better. Soft ground, eight-cleat boots are comprised of stronger materials, including stitching, to cope with the amount of force, measured in pounds per square inch, that they are exposed to in matches. Several brands offer a slightly wider cut boot to accommodate larger athletes who wear a single digit on the back of their match jersey. Generally speaking, forwards should be wearing boots designed for the demands of their position. To do otherwise will potentially cause you to slip, lose ground in contact, and prematurely wear your boots out. Interestingly, Nike discontinued manufacturing an eight-cleat boot because they did not feel they could manufacture a product that met their expectations for performance and durability.
Firm ground boots are typically of a molded sole design, although some brands have introduced a hybrid of sorts with replaceable metal tips to the molded cleat. Firm ground boots have a lesser profile cleat configuration that offers good purchase on the playing surface and enhanced comfort to rugby players. Early in my representative career, I was told that “forwards should never wear firm ground boots” for several reasons, including lack of traction. The well-intended chap who offered me that advice never played a test against Japan in Hawaii on a field that was comprised of a little grass and a lot of lava rock. Fortunately, I was able to switch from soft ground boots to those built for firm ground at halftime of that spirited test match and keep the damage to my feet at a minimum.
My recommendations for firm ground boots differ for forwards and backs. As a forward, I like the Nike Tiempo Legend III FG. They are constructed with a glass fiber shank and quilted kangaroo upper. For the backs, I strongly recommend considering the legendary Adidas Copa Mundial. This boot, also constructed with kangaroo leather, is a long time favorite of mine and remains very popular to this day.
For soft ground conditions, my recommendations come by way of sub units within the team. For tight forwards, look into the Gilbert Evolution X SG. This is an eight-sprig boot designed for comfort and durability. Loose forwards can’t go wrong with the new Adidas Flanker IV WF. This is a dedicated wider boot that provides superior traction for those who have to not only contribute to the scrum, but also cover the field. Nothing makes a rugby coach cringe more than seeing a forward on a soft field with molded boots because it will, at some point in the match, be disastrous. Unlike my experience in Hawaii, I have never made that particular error. For inside backs, which I define as scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside center, consider the Adidas World Cup boot. Like its firm ground cousin, the Copa Mundial, the World Cup boot is a legendary performer and used by some of the best players in the game. Outside backs should consider Nike’s new Mercurial Miracle SG. This boot is built for speed weighing in at a mere 9.2 ounces.
Of course, players should research and purchase boots that meet their own personal criteria, selecting boots that are in their price range and that fit properly. Regardless of the brand, model, or price, rugby players should take care of their boots after each use to gain the best repetitive performance from them. Taking a few minutes to assure your boots are clean and able to “breathe” after trainings and competitions will allow you to get as much usage from your selected footwear. A common strategy is to have one pair of boots for training and one for competition. This provides players the ability to spread the amount of wear and tear out over the course of a season, thus maximizing the monies spent on footwear.
I encourage players to perform due diligence when selecting a pair of boots and don’t purchase on looks alone. While good boots are no substitute for hard work, they can help you achieve your performance goals and enable you to the focus on another aspects of performance improvement.
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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