Rugby boys, play soccer not cricket!

Brendon Shields

I have long wondered whether rugby-focused schools in South Africa should drop cricket as a summer sport and instead play soccer, or even Gaelic football!

The reason being that the skills required to play soccer better complement rugby. If, for example, you are a left-handed batsman in cricket, you will never have to learn to bat right-handed. The same goes for bowlers.

This is a ‘defect diagram’ I created for a client recently. The graphic reflects the skillset of an under-15 rugby team in South Africa:

All 15 players completed the same skills assessment to determine which techniques they used to execute each skill. From that data, the squad’s performance could be summarized:

While it is fairly rare for a team at this age group to not have one player who can kick off both feet, the rest of the data is pretty much in line with all other teams I measured. The fact of the matter is that an average rugby team is predominantly right-handed and very few teams, even at professional level, consist of players who are perfectly balanced.

Soccer demands more balance
When it comes to coordination and balance, very few soccer players will succeed if they cannot pass off both feet or remain balanced while dribbling a ball off both feet. Similarly most soccer players develop an ability to ‘read’ a ball traveling at speed from a far distance in order to stop it or header it to a target.

If all 15 players in a rugby team played soccer during summer, how would the above graphic look for most teams?

Sports science research has shown that successful sports people were often exposed to a wide variety of sports during their youth. While I believe that the skills learnt in some sports are more transferable to rugby than others, I’m not saying that cricket is of no value.

Ireland and Australia are at an advantage
Rugby is essentially a North-South sport. Whether we scrum or kick or carry the ball, our key movement is northerly. It’s only when we throw into a line-out or when we pass (or kick-pass) that we partake in an East/West movement.

In Australian and Gaelic Football, players can move East/West and North/South more frequently. In these sports you are more likely to field passes and kicks over a longer distance and from numerous angles.

In order to move forward, these sports also demand players to dribble the ball (either by bouncing or kicking it to themselves) while in motion. An exposure to these additional skills give players from Ireland and Australia a clear advantage over our players who just play North/South games such as rugby and cricket.

No wonder then that those two countries with so few rugby players compared to us can deliver world-beating teams!

Have a look at some Gaelic and AFL game footage to see what I mean:

Wrestling to be made compulsory?
I recently ran a poll on Twitter to learn from other coaches which sports they think can add to a rugby skillset. Interestingly many coaches felt that some style of wrestling can be particularly beneficial to improve scrummaging and breakdown technique.

In summary, I would urge schools to take stock of how many rugby rugby players pitch up to play cricket. And of those that do, how much action do they see as bowlers or batsmen?

Surely it’s no good having your #5 lock bat at 8 when he could be improving his kick-off returns while playing volleyball? What do you guys think?

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Brendon is the developer of, a Google-based game-analysis system for schools and club rugby.

- Brendon Shields

Let's chat

  • Wynand

    I would say that most SCHOOL children should be able to choose which sport the want to play? No school should drop cricket in favor of another sport. They should just add soccer as a sport the children can choose if they want to. What about the children that really dislike soccer? Are we going to force them to play something they hate just so that they won’t get dropped from the rugby team?

    This argument of yours is maybe what would be best for rugby as a sport but not necessarily what would be best for the children. Rather incorporate soccer/afl/whatever training into your rugby training. When I was at school we used to play soccer as part of our fitness. It tested your lungs to the max

    Using your argument above, we should also start giving the boys dance lessons? Nothing would teach them to have twinkle toes like dancing would? I sure as hell would not start dancing just to side step better.

    • Brendon Shields

      And kids for the most part play what dad tells them to play. If kids could truly just play what they want to play, it would be Xbox.

    • Brendon Shields

      Wynand this is not about forcing anyone to do anything. Its about looking at a single sport from a scientific viewpoint and asking if a prop benefits more from standing in the outfield or doing wrestling. I am yet meet a kid who ‘hates’ soccer. But having rugby wings play soccer as well as cricket will benefit their rugby. Thats all I am suggesting.

  • Nick

    Thanks for that Brendan.
    Great presentation of this issue.

    However, we should not really take the line that all sports should ultimately feed into the great rugby god. I would think that the top 25 or so great rugby sausage factories, Oops, ‘schools’, would have no problem with this though.

    You do point out that this would suit rugby focused schools.

  • Brendon Shields

    Thanks Nick,

    I agree that its not a forced solution. Buy so many schools are like 80% rugby focused, so its food for thought.

  • Barry

    Thanks Brendon, interesting.

    Surely individual skill sets can be worked on within code and also during the off season without having to venture into another sport. The starting point is to firstly identify what they are and then give the players the means of up-skill?

    Associated sports like sevens and more so touch ruby would hugely benefit our 15’s players, particularly tight forwards. We seem to have a notion in SA that you can’t teach the fat boys to step!

    Countries like Australia spend way more time on up-skilling . They have such a small player base to work with and thus it becomes an imperative. In SA we are often spoilt for choice, so the onus of responsibility for up-skilling sits more with the player than the administration! That mind set needs to change!

    The good news is that we are not without progress! We had a chap in the Senior side in 2018 with a missed tackle count of 42. By identifying the problem and up-skiling they’ve managed to container it to 41 this year! His hard work and improvements have been suitably rewarded! Heck, on in SA!

    • Brendon Shields

      Yes Barry, you can play more Volleyball to help locks contest kick off better etc. I just take issue with the many school environments where you get two real options. Rugby and cricket. While my team bats my team mates sit and chew gum? In other team sports everyone keeps active. If instead of cricket you play soccer, more boys are active and they learn different skills that in my opinion suit rugby better than cricket.

  • Nick

    And well supported and thought through. So often at the lower levels of the game, gameplans are unworkable due to the issue you explain and illustrate here.

    Like crap refs I guess you just need to accept it as coming with the territory sometimes. I do think that a one dimensional approach, or ever specialisation on one sport puts the breaks on overall physical development.

    I recall a great picture from way back of Frik DuPreez playing football for the defence force. He knew his way around a ball!

  • Brendon Shields

    Wow Nick I never saw that! Also interesting to study the sociology of sport to understand why we play rugby and cricket at school but not football. Township schools mostly football and cricket. Lots of social engineering going on. But common sense and science should make us question these divisions in the pro era.

  • Nick

    Absolutely. Obvious social engineering re the bad old days and what sports were seen as desirable by the old regime. But interesting to see a traditional institution like Grey Bloem playing football to no detriment to the rugby set up.

  • boyo

    I am not questioning what you are saying because form a purely rugby standpoint it makes sense and this is a rugby forum. However from a non- rugby standpoint I think kids should be free to play which ever sport they prefer and that second sport if rugby is their first love should be chosen on its own merits and not its merits only in relation to rugby.

  • boyo

    What about the handling skills gained in cricket? Hours spent on catching?

    • Brendon Shields

      Cricket has many virtues. For me the biggest one is the quick reaction time you require while batting and fielding. Here I think cricket is one of the best teachers.

      • boyo

        Another good point there Brendon.

  • Nick

    Barry, Great to read you again!

    Don’t know how much you know about Aussie rugby but you will see that they are hugely influenced in their skill set by early exposure to Rugby League and AFL, not to mention other sports. This exposure has a clear effect on their skill set when transfered to rugby.

    This supports the writers premise here regarding overall sporting exposure developing rugby players in the long run.

    I know you probably knew this already knowing your vast and deep knowledge of all matters.

  • Nick

    Wynand, I discern a somewhat soccerphobic approach from your post!

    Don’t worry. It won’t make your kids start dancing lessons.

    [If I can put it that way!]

  • Herman

    Brendon, I believe part of the coaching regime should include a generous dollop of Sevens exposure even for the ‘fatties’. Apart from improving conditioning it would enhance all the skills so lacking in our rugby. The forwards could contest with each other in teams and the backs in separate teams. Even in a slow mo ‘fattie’ game the players will be exposed to tackling, passing, spatial awareness etc skills and learn how to react quicker which is a problem for our XV’s teams when they are exposed to teams playing at a much higher tempo. Also no place to hide for the non tacklers.

    One of my grandsons at Rondebosch played rugby for years then decided to play soccer for a season. Did not last too long and he was soon back to rugby which he stated was for more demanding skillful and rewarding. Funnily enough his rugby did improve markedly though. Due to soccer or more mature ? Methinks the latter. Cheers

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