Everyone’s seen the football highlights: huge, crushing tackles that lay runners out flat. For years, football players have learned to hit fearlessly and hard, but the sport has come under criticism for the long-term damage those hits can do to the brain, especially in young players.
But for the past several years, a different type of tackle has been gaining favor among football teams. Rugby games generally see more than a hundred tackles in a match, and the players don’t wear as much protective gear. And rugby coaches say football teams can learn a lot from more than a hundred years of rugby tackles.
“Our rugby players don’t care about size, because it’s about leverage,” said Ken Fraine, a Loudoun Rugby coach, former Gonzaga College High School rugby coach, and self-proclaimed rugby “old boy.” In his nine years at Gonzaga, the rugby team went from only a few players, to three-time champs. Now, he and other rugby coaches are sharing what they know in clinics with football teams.
Even with USA Football’s NFL-backed Heads Up Football program players are hitting high and hard, with their heads in front of the ball carrier. But in a rugby-style tackle, the defensive player puts his head past the ball carrier, hits the carrier’s hip with shoulder (“cheek to cheek”), and wraps the carrier’s legs up in his arms, taking the ball carrier’s legs out and gaining the leverage to bring him down.
“The bigger you are, the bigger the target you are, if you’re tackling properly,” Fraine said. And that tackle means players’ heads aren’t getting jarred as much.
The rugby-style tackle and variations on it are gaining ground at every level of play. The Seattle Seahawks coaching staff have begun evangelizing for a similar tackle they call “Hawk tackling.”
“In rugby, if you put your head in front of somebody’s knees, you don’t play very long, and you don’t keep your beautiful face very long,” said USA Rugby Director of Training and Education Ken Forehand.
“There’s no coach I’ve ever met that I’ve ever worked with or respected that didn’t say, safety first,” Fraine said. “But they didn’t always know the safest way to teach things. We’ve been tackling like this for 180 years, it’s second nature to us.”
The confidence and safety that come with the rugby-style tackle have a lot of advantages on the field. Fewer injuries means fewer players off the field, and smaller players having the confidence to take down bigger plays means every player is an effective tackler.
Ask the seventh and eighth graders on the Ashburn Youth Football Falcons, who just won the Ashburn championship 46-6, won their first game in the Loudoun championship, and played in the countywide championship. (They lost to the Central Loudoun Giants—a defeat offensive coordinator Danny Vargas put to a passing offense having to play in high winds and hail.)
“It’s all on the defense that I’m running, and the fact that all the boys are making tackles,” said Falcons head coach and defensive coordinator Tom Ford. “There’s no fear factor anymore.”
This is the first year that Ford is coaching the rugby-style tackle, after a clinic with Fraine near the beginning of the season.
“I used to be one of those old-school coaches, just hit, hit, hit, hit, and I never really had anybody get hurt,” Ford said. “But last year, I had one kid get a concussion, and that’s when I switched my style up.”
Now in a league where dramatic size differences necessitate a rule that players above a certain weight can’t be ball carriers, one of his best tacklers is also one of his smallest players.
“He’s no more than 90 pounds, maybe 100 at best, and you can’t beat him because of the simple fact that he’s always got his shoulders square and he never backs down,” Ford said.
“It’s definitely something that coaches or teachers of the sport should implement,” agreed offensive coordinator Vargas. “I don’t want to put a regulation on something but, at the end of the day, we want everybody to be safe and have fun, and if there’s tools that can help the sport be safer, then I think it should be implemented.”
“I think it’s good for both sides of the ball,” Forehand said. “Because let’s face it, the way we were going about it, essentially we weren’t thinking about the person taking the hit, which is kind of unconscionable.”
Fraine, who encourages all his rugby players to play other sports including football, hopes the tackle can be good for football.
“The coaches, like the administrators of the youth football leagues, have a problem,” Fraine said. “Their numbers are dropping. It’s not because it’s not a fun sport. I want them to play safely, and I want their numbers to increase.”
“We play dangerous games, with fast, big humans,” Forehand said.