Training for Rugby League vs. Rugby Union

Introduction

Rugby players are all round athletes. Nobody just sprints or just pushes weight or just stands there and passes - every player needs to be able to do (at least a little but) of everything.

Players need to be capable of 80 minutes of effort without fading, they need to get around to the right parts of the field in a reasonable time and they need to be ready for sudden bursts of more intense activity when tackling, scrummaging, carrying etc.

Here's a breakdown of the different elements of training (with rugby league first, followed by union, highlighting the differences and similarities).

Rugby League Motiation

The aussies at a kick off.
The aussies at a kick off. | Source

Rugby League Training

In general, rugby league is a bit faster than union with much higher ball in play time. Players carry out short intense stints of activity, either carrying in attack or tackling in defence, but the positioning required means they rarely rest for long. In addition, the restarts for the game are faster than union meaning the players need to be able to move continuously.

Strength training - League players need to be strong all over to make both low and upright body tackles in defense, busts through the opposition in attack, to drive forwards with the legs, and to try to turn the opposition on his back (as then the defensive line have more time to get set up). Lots of squats, deadlifts and work on the shoulders arm and chest are needed, as well as wrestling work.

Speed and agility - This is essential for evading tackles, making tackles, making a break, supporting well, getting in defensive position and more. Sprint training is important, and so SAQ (Speed Agility and Quickness) drills to practice changing direction quickly. Core work in the gym is also important for maintaining balance.

Endurance - One of the biggest differences between rugby league and rugby union is the fact that league has rolling subs - meaning players can go and off the field for a break. This means that players can give a little bit more as they know there'll be time to recuperate. However, the need to constantly get back in line in defense does mean that players can't slack off on overall endurance either.

Skills - In general all league players need really good ball-handling skills - this is probably a bit more important to most players than in union, where fewer players have significant passing duties. Specialists do need to have certain skills mastered too however - the halfbacks and hooker need particularly good passing skills, fullbacks and wingers need to catch well and whoever is in charge of kicking needs that sorted too.

Conclusion - overall, league players can train together most of the time, doing similar drills, core skills, strength, fitness and speed work. The game demands similar physical traits from most players so the training needs to reflect this. There are of course specialty positions and some skills like kicking that only certain players to work on - but good ball skills are important for all players, and there are a lot of tactical shapes, processes and structures that need to be understood by all the players, so lots of training time is spent on this too, with the whole team.

And Now - Get Pumped Up!

Union Training Summary

  • Players need to train athletically to meet different demands
  • Different positions also need players with different sets of skills
  • Players must also train in mini-teams to deal with specific situations on the field
  • But it also important to bring it all together so everyone is on the same page

Rugby Union Training

In general rugby league and rugby union are similar of course - but union does have a lot more specialist positions that need to be trained for a little differently. Below, the different positions in a union starting XV are written, explaining what different skills and training they need:

1, 2 and 3 - the front row boys are big, hulking specimens who need high levels of overall strength. They aren't usually the fittest or fastest players, but they have big arms and chests, and strong backs and legs. They need to focus on the technical skills in the scrum and making carries in the loose. Good front rowers also lift well in the lineout and hit plenty of rucks and mauls, while defending solidly close to the breakdown.

4 and 5 - the second rowers in the boilerhouse are often the biggest players on the field as they are needed to jump in the lineout. Often a little more athletic than front rowers the best second rowers have good hands and carry well, while also being strong enough to make a big contribution to pushing in the scrum.

6 - often known as the 'enforcer', the blindside flanker is a bit of a fitter and faster second row who often has duties defensively in the loose. They need a bit more speed and endurance, but still need great overall strength to put in a big shift in attack or defense. There isn't too much specialist skill training needed to be a good 6, its more about being a great athlete and being brave on the field.

7 - the openside flanker is usually known as the 'fetcher' as their biggest job on the field is to try and win turnovers. Traditionally the 7 is a bit faster and more athletic than the 6 but they also have very high upper body strength, particularly in the arms, to try and win the ball in defense or secure it in attack. A very good 7 to have a massive impact on the overall success of a team.

8 - the number eight needs to make a contribution in the lineout, and in defense, but also needs to focus on controlling the back of the scrum. The no. 8 is often a big ball carrier, either in the lose or from the scrum, and needs to work well with the 9 and 10 too. they are often known as the link between the forwards and the backs, and are usually built more like the 6 than the 7 (though at the highest levels rugby players are just all various different scales of massive so it doesn't make a huge difference!)

9 - the scrum half is a vital player on the field and needs great hands and vision, and to be quick off the mark. The 9 also takes box kicks so that must be practiced, and they need to make decisions on when the ball goes wide or stays tight - or when they take it on themselves. In France scrum-halves are known as the 'little generals' as they usually have massive decision-making roles, and often kick points as well.

10 - the outside half or fly-half is traditionally one of the most skilled players on the field. They direct the backs and need to pass well, they usually kick (for points, field position and in attack) and they need to control the line in defense. Traditionally a fly-half doesn't tackle that much but that isn't really the case in modern rugby, and the best 10s are also a running threat themselves and can score and set up tries.

11 and 14 - the wingers need out and out speed. They need to be fit, and obviously every rugby player needs strength, but speed is the main thing, as wingers are usually in the most space in attack. They also need to catch well to field passes or collect opposition kicks.

12 - the inside center was transitionally the bigger back, tackling any forwards or backs close to the breakdown and running hard to make ground in attack. They need to be fast, big and strong, and also need to be able to pass the ball well when needed.

13 - the outside center is often a little faster than the 12 as they have more room to work with. They do need to be good defensively, particularly with positioning, as it can be a tricky challenge.

15 - the full back needs to be fast and fit, with good hands and a good boot. The best ones attack the line well but traditionally full backs do a lot of defensive work, sweeping behind and fielding opposition kicks.

Conclusion - as you can see, a lot more position-specific training is needed in union as different players need different skills and have very different physical demands made of them in a match. Union players also need to train in mini-teams - the forwards need to practice scrums and lineouts together, the backs need to do back moves, 9 and 10 must work on their linking and positioning, 11, 14 and 15 also need to be in tune with each other to cover the deep areas in defense and so on. More training time should be given over to these tasks, but the whole team also needs to train together to put all the pieces in place so that everyone knows what's going on.

Scrum Training

Scrum training with the pack.
Scrum training with the pack. | Source

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