By Dr. J. ZIMMERMAN
You probably wouldn’t guess this at first glance, but rugby and American football share a very close history. Historically, rugby developed from the sport of soccer, and football developed from the sport of rugby.
If you are able to go on YouTube and search “early American football games” you will see film clips of players wearing hardly any equipment and, for the most part — just like in a rugby game — running the ball hard into the opposition and advancing downfield while backward lateralling the football.
Football even started calling its scores a touchdown, even though they never actually touched the ball down. In rugby, once a player crosses the score line, the score does not count unless the ball is “touched down” in the score zone.
As in rugby, football players kick for extra points after a score. Both games are contact sports that push the athleticism of their participants. The games of football and rugby require many of the same skills. Both sports require speed, agility, strength and fitness. Hand-eye coordination is paramount as well as jumping, pushing and driving.
That being said, every football player — whether they are in Pop Warner, high school or college programs — should be playing rugby in the spring season. Here is why.
There are three areas in football that need to have optimal performance. As good as a football team is, these three areas always have room for improvement. First is lineman skills, second is defense and third is offense.
Lineman who play rugby can expect to see improvement in hand-eye coordination, block explosion, setting the line and reading the defense.
Defensive players can show major improvements in tackling, tracking and trailing the offense, and overall reading of the offense.
As far as offensive players such running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks, rugby improves defensive reading of shifts, ball retention and hand-eye coordination.
Plus, overall athleticism, including footwork, improves with rugby. The major benefit to playing rugby in the off-season is that rugby players are some of the most highly conditioned athletes on the planet. Rugby will improve playera’ fitness level, just in time for the beginning of preseason football training in the summer months.
Imagine being a football player and showing up to training camp already in the best shape of your life (with better skills than you had last season).
Rugby is not in competition with football programs. Both sports play in opposite seasons and the skills learned in rugby enhance a football player’s overall competitiveness and increase the team’s chances for success.
In addition, rugby players are the best tacklers. Rugby tackle techniques are effective and safe for both defensive players and the player being tackled.
In this concussion-safety environment, football programs are turning to rugby to teach their players how to safely and effectively tackle the opposition. A few years ago, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll transitioned to rugby style tackling (with the help of professional rugby coaches).
That first year of implementing rugby tackles into their program, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. If you currently check the Seahawks tackle statistics, you will see that they are one of the NFL’s top tackling teams.
Rugby tackling involves heads-up shoulder tackling. Rugby players lead with the shoulder — never the head, because they wear no protective headgear — with an emphasis on hitting the ball carrier hard in the strike zone (above the knees to the lower chest) while wrapping the opposition up with their arms and driving them to the ground.
This is one of the reasons why rugby players do not wear protective equipment such as helmets and shoulder pads. Rugby tackles are much safer. The head-up, shoulder-first approach to tackling helps prevent head and neck injuries and concussions.
The last argument I would like to make for football players joining a rugby team in the spring is that college recruiters are now looking more for multiple-sport athletes as opposed to single-sport specialists.
The 2016 NFL draft had the highest percentage of high school multiple-sport athletes since 2013. Nearly 90 percent of draftees had participated in multiple sports in high school.
Case in point, Nate Ebner, the extraordinary special teams player for the New England Patriots (now pursuing his second SuperBowl ring), was a national-caliber rugby player in high school and college. The Patriots even let him take some time off from training camp this past summer to play rugby at the Olympics.
The Patriots’ coaches were not worried about Ebner not being in NFL playing shape or losing the tackling skill he is known for.
And, if you have ever seen a rugby match, you know why! Ebner probably went back to the Patriots in the best shape of his life.
So, if there are any high school football players out there interested in playing rugby, send me an email. If any football coaches are interested in more information, you can email me, too.
Dr. J. Zimmerman is the president of the Jersey Shore Rugby Club Board of Directors. He is the men’s club head coach and director of youth rugby. Dr. J. is also the team chiropractor. For more information on Jersey Shore Sharks Rugby, including our high school rugby team, or if you are interested in playing, visit www.JerseyShoreRugby.com or on Facebook at Jersey Shore Rugby Club, or call 609-652-6363 or e-mail Jerseyshoresharks@gmail.com.