By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – Rugby is one of those cool sports where very little equipment is involved in the actual game. It’s just you, the ball, a mouthguard and possibly a scrum cap staring down your opponent.
But as a club, investing some funds in a few really key pieces of equipment can change the dynamics of training. Some of these must-haves protect your players from injury. Some of them help develop crisp technique or breed faster and stronger athletes. And some of them just cut a lot of the logistical headache that comes with running a club. But all have a place in your practice sessions.
The scrum is such a beautiful, technical area of the game where the little things really do matter. Rehearsal of timing, unity, binds, and body positioning are critical. The directional force production needed for scrums is difficult to reproduce in a gym setting. And repeated live scrummaging can be hard on the body, raise injury risk, not to mention impossible to do without two full packs at training.
But we can all agree that a well-executed set piece launches an efficient attack. Lose the set piece, lose the ball and lose momentum. The outcome of your set pieces can be the difference between winning and losing the game.
Therefore, every club should own a scrum sled. They’re the best way to practice the intricacies of scrummaging for the tight five. They are useful tools for timing your drives, put ins and picks with your back row and scrum halves. And they can help develop necessary core strength and force production while minimizing injury risk.
Related Article: Rugby Scrum Sleds
I wouldn’t say this is the single most important element of training, as obviously you need a ball first. But scrum sleds are going to be the most expensive purchase for your club. Therefore, it comes first in case your financials require you to trim the fat in other areas.
A staple of any club is a good set of ruck pads. Especially for contact novices, ruck pads can help ease the idea of slamming their shoulder into something. As tackle proficiency progresses, have the attack use pads to run lines and add a tracking element. And unlike tackle bags, ruck pads force players to keep their feet and drive forward upon contact.
But they’re called ruck pads for a reason – to train the breakdown. Send as many defensive players as you want into a ruck, and ask players to make decisions about the clear out. Opposition can present high, low, sideways and more to crowd the ruck while minimizing injury risk.
Pads can be bent in half to reinforce body height. You can hold one over a scrum halves head to prevent them from lifting the ball before they pass. Or my personal favorite, place one on the ground to practice hitting the floor and popping up quickly (pads cushion the blow if you’re doing this repeatedly for conditioning). Case and point: get some ruck pads, be creative, and become dominant in the breakdown.
As soon as the coaches bring these out, I’m notorious for being the first to put one on. Not because I’m afraid to get hit, but because I know that means someone is going to try and smash me. And I love that challenge.
Tackle suits are basically full-body scrum caps. They provide just a little extra protection, and you don’t have to physically hold them like you would a pad.
Are you planning a defensive drill where you need full contact? Worried about your attackers getting drilled repeatedly in two-player tackles? Throw them in bodysuits. This keeps hands free for attackers to play rugby, increases player welfare, and limits injury risk.
Additionally, the defense will be more likely to train full tilt. A challenge of training the contact area is often times teammates don’t want to hurt each other. Body suits, however, kind of flip that switch for defenders. Sessions should still be short (as it’s still just a small bit of cushioning), but the intensity level ramps up. Prioritize quality of reps over quantity of reps.
An all-too-common mistake of strength and conditioning programs is a lack of focused preparatory work. People get caught up in the glamorous “run ‘til you puke” or “lift as much weight as possible” sessions.
It’s not fun to do band walks and pallof presses. They’re hard without the gratification of going a million miles an hour. And most athletes have instability issues, core weakness and muscle imbalances that lead to injury.
Add band activation exercises into your warm-up and watch the injury rate go down. A basic warm up could look like this:
- Banded hip flexor traction x30s each
- Banded hamstring activation x10 each leg
- Band walks x 10 each direction
- Banded good mornings x 10
- Palloff press x 10 each side
- Banded overhead press x 10
- Isometric squat row holds x 40 seconds
- 4-way Iso neck holds x 20 seconds each direction
Resistance bands promote speed and power development as well. Use them for overspeed training or resisted directional running. Sprint mechanics remain the same, but bands provide a 10-15% increase (or decrease) in effort, training the body to move faster when the bands are off.
Use them to pull players in different directions while in a scrum profile position and mimic the demands of contact on the core. You can attach them to player’s hips for pass development. Bands force you to step into the pass and power through your whole body. Do this for a few weeks with your 9s and 10s and you might add 10 meters to their passing.
Speaking of developing passes, they make a ball for that. In the gym, we use medicine balls for transverse core strength. On the field, the pass developer is a handy addition to your ball bag for adding speed, distance and accuracy to passes.
I wouldn’t recommend using this for teaching passing basics to a first-timer. The added weight makes it harder to throw, so take care using pass developers at early stages. Trying to force the extra weight can breed a whole host of complications.
BUT, as we continue to hone basics no matter our level of expertise, the pass developer makes seasoned players focus a little more on doing everything right. You have to follow through, or else the ball will just sink to the ground. You have to activate your core as you rotate to pass, or you won’t generate enough power to pass to your teammate. And you can’t just flick passes – you really have to punch through to your target with correct hand positioning.
It might feel weird transitioning back to a training ball after throwing 100 passes with the developer. But if you can pass a weighted ball 10 meters with speed and accuracy, imagine how easy it’ll feel to throw that long ball to your wingers.
Match and Training Balls
Really, just get a good set of balls. It’s horrible to show up to practice and not be able to catch and pass because the balls have zero grip on them. Make it easier on your athletes to play crisp, attacking rugby by keeping new balls in the shed.
But make sure to include a few match balls in addition to your shiny training balls. That way, on game day when the other team shows up with their run down balls on a rainy day, you can hand the ref a good ball to play with. And then run around everyone.
Match balls are also really important for kickers and throwers, as the weight is actually distributed differently. If you look at a match ball, the air pump is located along a seam rather than in the middle of one of the ball faces. This allows it to fly truer and cleaner through the air – critical elements of throwing straight in a lineout or kicking a conversion. Get some match balls to train with and give your athletes their best shot at being accurate on game day.
Cones and Pinnies
If you’re going to run any drill, you need cones. Sure, you could use a t-shirt or water bottle as a placeholder, but it’s much better to just get cones.
Lots of “training pitches” are really just the grassy areas of your local park. Use cones to draw out different-sized grids for small-sided attack games. Put out different colored cones for defensive alignment drills. Set up a no-ruck zone within the 15 m lines to force players to move the ball wide. Throw the cones at your coaches when they’re not looking (not actual advice).
Cones are so versatile and seem so obvious for training that I almost didn’t include them. But as they are a “must have”, make sure you have a good set of cones. Try to get multiple colors for different grid areas. And get some sort of cone ring as well, as cones get lost faster than socks in a dryer.
In addition to cones, bibs, pinnies, vests (whatever you call them) are critical for divvying up teams. It’s much easier than asking your athletes to bring a dark and a light shirt to every training. You’re going to want to run some sort of opposition against each other in training, so having a solid set of pinnies is key. Even better – get multiple colors and you can have multiple teams. Or even differentiate between tight five, back row and backs to see where your players end up on the field. The options are endless.
Water Bottles and Medical Kit
Please do not rely on individual athletes to bring their own water. Chances are they’ll forget. Even if they remember, your field is probably in the middle of a park somewhere far away from a water fountain. And they’ll go through the tiny bottle they brought by the time warm up is over.
Invest in a good set of bottles and fill them up before training. If possible, get a cooler and bring it along as well for refills. This is assuming you don’t have a full staff of physios providing your team with water. But dehydration isn’t something to mess around with. Athletes are going to suffer from water loss with sweat as well as general energy expenditure. Keep everyone healthy and hydrated throughout training.
Also, rugby is a sport. All sports have inherent injury risk. At some point during the season, whether its turf burn, a poke in the eye or a sprained ankle, an injury will happen. While serious injuries should always involve a trained medical professional, having a med kit can help keep minor wounds from becoming major. You can wrap a swollen ankle, tape up a jammed finger, or clean up any blood. Better safe than sorry.
Ball Pump and Ball Bag
Last but not least, you need balls for training! I felt like rugby balls themselves went without saying. But having a bag keeps them from getting lost (or stolen) and helps store the bibs and cones you just bought.
The balls will deflate faster than you think, so get a good ball pump. Kickers hate it when balls are flat. It also changes passing and catching mechanics, which deflates your whole training session. Grab a good ball pump, toss it in the bag, and be prepared.
What pieces of rugby equipment are essential for your rugby club? What piece of equipment is on your ‘must-have’ list for your club’s next purchase?
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C. She is currently training with Harlequins in England.