Updated: Dec 31, 2020
“How do I get better at winning turnover ball for my team at the breakdown?”
Believe it or not, there is an art to the breakdown. Having played back row for over 15 years I have become accustomed to being in all sorts of situations, more so at breakdowns and scrum time. Breakdowns for me are what I love the most because it tests a number of qualities such as stability, balance, strength, power and also your ability to clear out players that are bigger than you.
Time and time again I see players belly flopping and going into the breakdown in all sorts of ways; you can get hurt if you don’t get it right and we’ve all been there. It’s critical to think about how you want to be seen as a rugby player and being smart will definitely help in this instance.
Firstly, rucking has some similarities to tackling and scrummaging. The way in which you approach the breakdown is different but the framework is similar; low body position, strong base and drive using the legs, are all part of it but I’ll let you think of the rest.
Secondly, jumping straight in head first is not going to win you clean and fast ball for you to score tries.
There are a handful of players at the elite level that are consistent at the breakdown; the reason that number is not high is that every situation is unique, there is also margins for error. associated with it.
Thirdly, don’t try and be a hero! Commit to the breakdown with intent.
“How is it done then?”
As you’ll see in Figure 1,the body position is key to getting the optimal outcome you’re looking for - maintaining position of the ball in attack. Notice the England player over the tackled player adopting a wide base and his hips are above his shoulders. Yes, you’ll never hear a coach say these words “get your hips high and wide” in the same sentence unless focusing on the breakdown specifically.
Different scenarios, different movements and everything you do in rugby is situation dependant so choose wisely for maximal outcomes.
Another scenario can be seen in Figure 2 where you’ll see Richie McCaw picks up the leg furthest away from the body thus putting Scott Sio off balance, making it easy for Richie to use the full force of his body to drive his shoulder in and clear Scott out of the breakdown area creating a successful clear out!
“What can I do to be stronger at the breakdown?”
Here are four things I recommend you consider to aid you in becoming a breakdown specialist.
1. Stay close to the ground
I want you to take a step back and count to ten before you start doing the same thing over an over again expecting a different outcome.
Interestingly enough most players have fallen into the same trap just by over committing and nine times out of ten the ref blows his whistle and says “you were playing the ball off your feet”!
The ability to hold ones own bodyweight is what sets most players apart. By working on your off feet movements you’ll learn how to hold your own bodyweight in the contact zone effectively.
Holding your own weight in the position shown in Figure 1 can be tough in most situations but by creating a wide stable base you’ll become a tough customer at the breakdown.
By working on floor based movements your body will be exposed to a variety of body positions you’ve never been used to, but this will help you if a player makes it awkward for you as you’ll be well prepared to stand your ground.
Working on a combination of both crawl and isometric / rotational core based exercises will make a significant improvement to your game.
2. Get your hips moving
Most humans naturally have tight hips, you are not alone!
In order to maintain a strong wide base and preserve stability we need to work on increasing flexibility and strength in this area.
To achieve this we should be focusing on lengthening the muscle groups but not limiting the surrounding muscle groups. There are a number of ways you can do this but my best recommendations are stretching and hip thrusting movements that engage both the anterior and posterior flexors alike. Most common go to’s would be the following:
Opening up the hips will allow you to increase the width of your stance and hold for longer periods of time under tension. Exercise variations are not individual specific but as a good starting point I suggest you start with 3-5 sets of either 20-30 sets for a stretch or 10-12 reps for a movement based exercise, focusing on stretching the muscle group - this is not an explosive task.
3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable
I’m going to be blunt here, injuries are inevitable in rugby. Somewhere along the line you’ve experienced something, if you haven’t then you're blessed by something or someone but let me ask you this: did we get to where we are today by being comfortable??? I think not!
Countless times I was beaten at a breakdown but the same answer came up when I kept asking my coach -I wasn’t low enough or I went in head first and overcommitted. I didn’t like hearing this so I changed it.
In many situations we gravitate to areas we feel comfortable, it’s natural. To be effective at the contact zone you need to be putting yourself in all sorts of awkward positions so you learn how to adapt. Like most things in life, every breakdown situation is unique so experiment with all types of scenarios in training.
Here are three things I worked on which you could include in your training when specifically working on your breakdown:
Prone work - start from a prone position and on a whistle blow see how quickly you can get to your feet to win a constant at a ruck.
Resisted breakdowns - using the resistance from a band will simulate a number of areas your body has to think about whilst carrying out the required task.
Unstable movements - try using different pieces of equipment that provide unstable movements to get your body accustomed to alternative stimulus and train your body to adapt to it quickly.
4. It’s better to be the master of one not the jack of all
With most things you do within the game of rugby, repetition is what sets the mediocre from the pros.
Defining yourself as an expert comes with time and countless hours of analysing your position, watching video, training scenarios, reading the game and knowing when to and when not to commit to the breakdown.
Ask yourself this question; “Do I need to be at every single breakdown?” The answer…. No you don’t.
Being the first one is great but if you already have the ball it would be a completely pointless for you to be there if you’re not required to be. You have seven other players in the pack, what’s one player meant to do on his own? Not a lot in my opinion, surplus to requirement move onto the next phase and be effective there.
Well I’m sure with these tips you can start building your foundations in becoming the go to for winning turnover ball and clearing out the breakdown. Over time you will start to come into your own and develop as a player but like with most things it takes time. I’m sure you will start generating a buzz around the team as the go to player and most importantly don’t forget to have FUN!
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