Necessary Roughness

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Ask a football player not to wear his helmet and pads for a game, and he’ll tell you to go to hell. Tell a college wrestler that this next match will be 15-on-15 instead of the usual one-on-one, and he’ll think you’re insane. But say those things to an Aussie or Kiwi, and they’ll most likely reply, “Brilliant! I love rugby, mate!”

To the American eye, the sport of rugby looks like a scene out of Braveheart, but with collared shirts. And truthfully, the sport is at least as rough as it appears. But that doesn’t mean it’s just a bunch of meatheads who need an excuse to hit someone before they go to the pub and drink their faces off. Underneath the mud and blood is a complex game of tactics and strategy that is wrapped up in imposing physicality.

The heart of rugby, and the thing the layman most closely associates with the sport, is the scrum. “Every time you talk to someone who doesn’t play rugby, they say, ‘What is that thing you guys do that is like a battering ram?’ That’s a scrum,” says Jay Ashman, former member of the Division I Long Island Rugby Club, who now helps coach local Cleveland teams. “A scrum is like an organized riot.”

A scrum occurs when there is a dead ball or a rules infraction in a ruck (another form of organized riot, but when the ball is on the ground) or maul (a third type of riot, but this time someone is holding the ball.) To begin a scrum, each team lines up its “tight five”: The front row is the hooker, flanked by the loosehead prop and the tighthead prop, all crouched down with their arms over each others’ backs. The two forwards make up the second row, and their heads go in between the legs of the prop and the hooker. When an official gives the command “engage,” the two teams collide, with each prop gripping the opposing props’ jersey. At that point, the ball is rolled into the gap between the two teams, which simultaneously strain to push the opposing team forward while they use their feet to try to kick the ball out the back of their own scrum and into the hands of their teammates.

Here is what it takes to scrum well:

Get low: When the official says “engage,” the two sides hit each other like a football offensive line during a run play. The key to moving your opponents is to get lower than them. Ashman describes the motion as being akin to how football players hit a sled in practice: “If you don’t get lower than the guy in front of you, he basically can pick you up,” Ashman explains. “You have to keep your hips low and keep driving forward and up. Once you start trying to drive down, you lose the scrum and it’s easy to get hurt that way.”

Stay tight: If a scrum sounds like what the Spartans do when battling the enemy horde in the movie 300, you’re not far off. “The props will wrap up with the hooker, who puts his arms around their neck. Everyone is tight, like a big battering ram,” Ashman says. “If you’re not tight, you’ll get pushed out of position very easily.”

Train the right way: Rugby demands strength and driving ability, which means that players need a strong back, legs and hips. “The core lifts are big, the squat, deadlift and power cleans,” says Ashman, who is a strength-and-conditioning coach at Titans Gym in Mentor, Ohio, and who has trained a number of Division 1 rugby players. “A lot of the top players in the game do Olympic lifting because it helps the quickness off the line. If you come off first, faster and more powerful, you are going to win the scrum.”

Condition yourself: Rugby is a combination of all-out sprinting interspersed with slower jogs. In fact, forwards can run up to seven miles in one game. For that reason, rugby athletes should perform high-intensity interval training and steady-state cardio.

Protect your neck: The scrum has been referred to as the most dangerous moment in sports, mostly because of the risk of neck injury. To help strengthen your neck, shoulders and upper back, Ashman recommends the squat shrug. Rack a bar across your shoulders in a basic back-squat position. Then perform a squat and, at the top of the movement, shrug the bar as high as you can.