Football learning from Rugby

In March 2017 Eddie Jones and his coaching team visited St George’s Park. This is the English national football complex in Burton-on-Trent. Jones was returning a visit from the England football manager a month earlier.

Gareth Southgate has spoken of what he gained from his visit to see Jones’ team train at Pennyhill Park. He was struck by several things:

  • How much individualised work there was in training
  • The emphasis on physical conditioning
  • The way unit skills are worked on and brought into training games
  • The team culture and how it is maintained
  • How England under Jones have built their winning mentality
  • Players leading the analysis of the opposition

Rugby learning from Football

So what was Eddie Jones looking to gain during his return visit? Jones is not alone in visiting football teams. Many rugby coaches have done the same. Why has he also consulted Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, to name just a few?

Some of the areas Jones has learned from in football are:
  • Mental preparation.

    Footballers often play twice as many games as rugby players in a season. As a result, they go through their mental preparation for games more often than rugby players, and with less rest in between.

  • Communication.

    Premiership football teams tend to have multilingual and multicultural dressing rooms. Even more so than Toulon! Managers are often second language English speakers themselves. Their communication skills must be excellent in order to do their jobs properly.

  • Lines of running in broken play.

    When counterattacking, footballers often run at an angle away from where the ball carrier wants to go. This pulls defenders away with them.

  • Ways of creating and exploiting space on the field.

    Jones has spoken of how he visited Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich while he was in charge of Japan. He explained how the Barcelona / Bayern teams managed by Guardiola varied their formation and depth to create space on the field.

  • Tactical Periodisation.

    This is a way of thinking about how a team trains. It aims to develop a game plan through providing tactical context for everything done in training. This process is continuous and focuses heavily on decision making. Training is done at a higher intensity than found in matches. This means under match pressure each player makes better choices. As an example of this methodology, Jones has said England players are now judged in part by their average time to get off the ground and back involved in the game. This metric shows how focussed and fresh a player is. Under fatigue, a player may stay down a heartbeat longer. At this point, his decision making will begin to suffer. Jones will soon replace the player.

  • Fitness and conditioning drills.

    Footballers routinely run over 10km per game and perform over 50 flat-out sprints. They also play twice as many games as rugby players. While the physiques and physical requirements are different, lessons can be learned from the way footballers prepare to meet this workload.

  • Rest and recovery.

    Footballers travel all over the world and play with little time to acclimatise. Recently Roberto Firmino and Phillipe Coutinho both played for Brazil in Santiago, Chile, then flew 6,000 miles back to England. Less than 48 hours later they both started for Liverpool against Manchester United.

Mental toughness in Cycling

Eddie Jones, like Stuart Lancaster before him, has always praised the value of taking ideas from other sports. Jones spent time with the cycling team Orica Scott during the 2017 Tour de France. He was impressed by the mental and physical toughness of the cyclists. He came away saying the England team could be 20% fitter. That must have given Dylan Hartley’s team some sleepless nights!

Photo: Otto Kristensen, via Flickr

The influence of Rugby League

Sir Ian McGeechan wrote a piece in the Telegraph in November 2013 explaining how much he believes Rugby Union can learn from Rugby League. At the time, he was coach of what is now Yorkshire Carnegie. Leeds Rhinos Rugby League club are heavily involved with Yorkshire Carnegie. McGeechan described how intertwined the academies are for both teams. Because the teams are so close, they even send out joint academy teams for 7s tournaments. He cites Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell as examples of high-level Union coaches with a League background. He could also have added Phil Larder, Mike Ford and many, many others.

Ian McGeechan
©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

McGeechan spoke about how influential the former League players were on the 1997 Lions tour. He talked about the way Union players use the spin pass too much for short passes, and the way the defence coaching of Shaun Edwards helped the attack on the 2009 Lions tour. You could write many books on the crossover influence of players and coaches from Rugby League. Due to the size of the topic, I will confine myself here to reporting Sir Ian’s thoughts.

Skill replication in Basketball

Ben Ryan, the coach of the World Series and Olympic Gold medal-winning Fiji side, is a big fan of American sports. After Olympic success, Ryan worked with the NBA team the New York Knicks. He says NBA sides are much more advanced than rugby teams at skill replication. He uses the example of a 3-point jump shot. No matter where a player is on the court, whether in a game or training, the technique is exactly the same. The player’s body moves in exactly the same way. Ryan says an equivalent skill in rugby is a 15-metre spin pass on the run. Rugby players are not so good at making each pass exactly like all their others. Therefore their skill execution is less consistent.

Fitness and footwork in Combat Sports

Many rugby players have an interest in MMA. James Haskell spoke about his use of MMA training techniques in an interview shortly after the 2011 World Cup. He emphasised the fitness aspect, but also the importance of footwork in both sports. Mako Vunipola spoke of how he practised Judo in an England U18 camp and Wasps player Sam Jones famously broke his leg while taking part in a Judo session at an England training camp in 2016.

Inspiration and combined training in American Football

Stuart Lancaster is fond of using American Football as inspiration for his coaching and to motivate his players. He used Tom Brady as the model for his ideal England player. When he was a young player, NFL scouts completely wrote Brady off. Brady subsequently became arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Lancaster wanted his England players to see what kind of player he was looking for.

Stuart Lancaster in his England days.
By Charlie (Flickr: IMG_2629), via Wikimedia Commons

The recent open practice between England and Wales that gained much publicity is something that happens in the NFL. There, they regularly practice against other teams in pre-season. This year Jacksonville Jaguars and Tamba Bay Buccaneers even played a friendly game 2 days after a combined practice session. Imagine England training together with Wales before playing a World Cup warm-up match 2 days later!

In Conclusion

Top rugby coaches now spend a lot of time looking at other sports. This article has only scratched the surface of what there is to learn. Sometimes in rugby, we are very inwardly focused. It seems to be better now. In the past, it was too easy to look to the All Blacks as the example to follow. While Rugby League has been very influential, other sports might provide the next leap forward for what is still, at the professional level, a very young sport.

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

5 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting read.
    My initial thoughts are, stay as far away from football as is possible, the whole ethos and mentality is wrong.
    I shudder every time Eddie’s England setup come into contact with football England, long term serial looser and chokers that they are !
    As far as other sports are concerned, nothing wrong with thinking outside the box and keeping the squad and coaches fresh with new ideas and training techniques.
    If I was heading a national team I would be looking at Olympic athletics coaching experts for player conditioning.
    I would also consider going to the Military for boot camp training and team building ahead of the RWC

  2. Hi Graham, thanks for the kind comment. With regards to learning from football, I’m sure we can also learn from things we don’t want to copy! I read Austin Healey’s book recently and he talks about going on a boot camp with the Royal Marines before the 1999 World Cup. He seems to rate the experience. With regard to the Olympics crossover, people like Danny Cipriani and Mike Brown work with Margot Wells, the sprinting coach. I know that most strength and conditioning coaches have coached multiple sports, so it seems the pros like the idea too!

  3. Awesome article man. I wonder what rugby can learn from other sports in a much broader sense, particularly off the field with PR and relationship with fans. For instance, many of us like to think of rugby as above football in some ways, but the fact is that football gets a 10 times greater audience than rugby and there must be reasons for that. Also with the organisation at the top level, we see arguments and power struggles between clubs and unions constantly, especially in the northern hemisphere. I think world rugby needs to be more proactive in developing a long term pan to bring more rugby to more people, starting with some proper tv deals!

    • Thanks very much Huw! You have some great ideas. I think the merchandising revenue in some American sports is pooled and shared, that might be something to look at. Rugby might be too complicated to generate the same kind of mass appeal football has. I would be pushing for more & more touch rugby in schools, especially primary. That plus a half way sensible global season would go a long way to solving a lot of problems. The other main part would be, like you say, getting some domestic rugby on free to air TV. I’d personally give weekly free highlights of the premiership to the BBC in return for a prime time Monday evening programme.

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