Line-breakers – Speed and Agility for Rugby League
Developing speed and agility for Rugby League is a tricky business, but it’s one that speed coach and 2XU ambassador
Developing speed and agility for Rugby League is a tricky business, but it’s one that speed coach and 2XU ambassador Roger Fabri knows very well. Fabri has coached sprint speed for NRL teams and he continues to coach the top athletes across all codes of football, even American football – in fact, he conducts speed clinics for NFL teams such as the Dallas Cowboys. Fabri says that Rugby League players and coaches can learn a lot from their counterparts in American football, but the tough part is fitting in the speed and agility with all the many other skills expected of the modern Rugby League player compared to the hyper-specialised roles seen in the NFL.
“They have to be able to kick, tackle, pass, run, so it’s hard to get the opportunity to focus on raw speed,” says Fabri.
Another issue is that players often have never learned the basics of sprinting. Fabri points out that in the USA, the high school and collegiate systems are set up to coach key movement patterns for running.
“In Australia, I’ve had to take the highest level athletes in the NRL and take them back to square one to try and teach the basic motor coordination for good running speed.”
Here Fabri explains the needs of the modern Rugby League player to get them up to speed.
Players do most of their loading in the off-season, working from a long to short program. That means they start with longer distances and then shorten it off – it wouldn’t be unreasonable for some of the running players to run reps of 150s in off-season. As the distances shorten up, then the intensity ramps up and so would the speeds.
In the firstcouple of weeks of pre-season, I don’t mind if guys run 250s – they don’t have to be full pelt – but 6-8 weeks before the season starts, the furthest I would get these guys to run would be 100-120m. This gets them strong enough to do those repeat runs in a game where they might do 20 hit-ups of up to 30–40m each. You need the ability to back them up so you do the last one at the same speed that you did the first one – that comes from speed-strength, which in turn comes from your overspeed. Overspeed gets you strong for short speed and certainly strong for repeat efforts.
In-season speed training
I want to train repeat sprints every week – but it doesn’t have to be high in volume. The difficulty with Rugby League is that there are so many other aspects of the game for each player to train – you can’t spend too much time on speed in season at the expense of skipping wrestling and tackling training, for example.
Here’s one brief speed session that I like to do:
4 x 20m
3 x 40m 2 x 60m 1 x 80m
Have an active recovery equal to distance sprinted – so you would sprint 20m, then walk 20m, then move straight into the next sprint.
Strength and technique for speed
In the NFL, most players come from a track running background. Their feet land completely underneath their hips, they’re right up on the balls of their feet, and they have a high ankle clearance. These things have become instinctive to them, so they get maximum efficiency. The NRL players usually haven’t had this background, and many have developed a bad habit of overstriding, with their foot landing in front of their body.
One thing I look for with the naked eye is the ability to raise the hips – hip height is a very important to get flying speed. That comes from the gym work. The hip flexors need to be very, very strong – combine this with a strong core and you will get good height in the hips so that the forward foot is nice and high before it starts its down-and-back action.
Sometimes a player can have quickness, but their foot hits the ground like a powder puff. We want them to hit the ground with so much force that there’s a digging effect – that’s the way you produce force. Other important factors are the height that you can clear the ankle because this will also give you maximum benefit of drive. You also need to understand the body position you should be in to create maximum velocity. This varies from player to player, as it depends on their individual biomechanics.
Plyometric movements can help train a player to hit the ground with power. Try movements such as a single or double-leg bound, which get players going in a horizontal direction – that is, the direction they spend most of their time moving.
‘Agility’ is often described as changes of direction with speed, and all positions in Rugby League need this. Up to six or seven years ago, NRL forwards used to have that one-dimensional type of play where all they would do is run the ball up in a straight line. Now you can see the successful forwards can change speed and change direction very quickly. This will only evolve even further – in five or six years’ time they’ll have a very similar game style to the backs.
Agility training used to be about setting up some cones at different angles, then getting players to get through them as quickly as they can. This doesn’t actually improve agility. You have to look at hip position and foot placement. You need soft knees soft knees. You need to try to get a rip and tear effect when you plant your foot and change direction.
In coaching, we show where the player’s foot should be planted, and whether they should be close to the hips or away from the hips. This varies depending on what type of agility you’re looking for. In offensive agility, you need separation against your defender, while defence agility requires you to try and minimise the separation. Both are very, very different.
This alignment of hip-to-leg is dependent on the angle that you want to create – the degree of the cut depends on the degree of the angle. Another important factor is to try to change direction but hold the same speed that you’ve built into it, and that’s pre-determined by where you plant your plant foot to get the change. If you have to plant it far away from your hips that you lose all the speed that you built into it, then you become an easy target.