Rugby Strength and Conditioning for Centres

In this week’s instalment of the rugby special strength training series: centre. If you play in the centres, pay attention to this one because I’m going to be walking you through a couple of my favourite drills for raising power output in centre specific movements on the field.

rugby strength and conditioning

Centre demands

As ever I am going to begin by assessing the physical demands of playing centre before we break down the key skills and introduce exercises to improve performance in them. Like most positions it is far to say that centres have to have a well balanced set of skills including kicking, passing, tackling, ball carrying through contact, evading defenders, running in support, even occasional rucking and mauling.

However it is fair to say that amongst this mixed bag there are certain skills that a centre must excel at. For me these movements are primarily ball carrying through contact, stepping defenders and tackling (I will be very generous and do three skills this week!). Let me explain why:

I’ve said again and again through this series that when I look at the most successful teams and players in rugby, the ability to dominate the set piece and the breakdown are key. Not lagging far behind this is the ability to dominate the midfield, specifically to break the opposing teams line (be that through guile or brute force) whilst eliminating defensive leaks.

The more times you can break the opposing line, the more opportunities you give yourself to score and/or release your outside backs to do their stuff. The less times your line gets breached, the less the opposition can do this to you. One only has to look at successful modern centres like Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi or Sonny Bill Williams (who I have had the pleasure of coaching) to see that they are built to make line breaks and make tackles.

As I’ve discussed previously in this series, deciding which skills you want to prioritise for a given player or position is up to you. Centres on the smaller side may wish to prioritise stepping defenders over carrying into contact. Larger centres may wish to do the opposite. In general my personal preference would be to prioritise carrying through contact for inside centre, with evading defenders being of greater importance for outside centres.

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Ball carrying

Obviously there will almost always be a short period of sprinting that precedes contact when a centre carries the ball. For the sake of simplicity I will not go into the demands of the sprint today, as all good rugby strength and conditioning programmes should entail sprint training and will account for this. This analysis pertains to the contact phase of the carry, where the goal is to maximise metres made after contact and/or break the tackle.

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In it’s most simple form, ball carrying through contact is simply an acceleration or sprint against a resistance applied, typically applied to the upper body (when the resistance is applied to the lower body, it gets pretty hard to run!). For that reason I’ve selected the harness sled sprint as my preferred tool to develop tackle breaking power in centres. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a sled, you can easily replicate this drill using a partner based resistance. Just loop a super-thick resistance band or beach towel over one shoulder and get your partner to provide resistance against you.

Load up the sled with 40-60kg of resistance. You want something that will slow you down and provide a decent resistance you have to work against, but nothing so big that the mechanics of the movement start to break down where you flex at the hip and do not completely extend at the hip, knee and ankle with each step.

As you can imagine, this drill shares a great deal of specificity with tackle breaking, with the additional benefit of having a far shorter learning curve than other drills that are typically more popular in rugby strength and conditioning programmes, namely the snatch and the clean.

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Stepping defenders

The two keys to using a change of direction to evade a defender are distance and speed: how much distance laterally can you put between yourself and the defender, and how quickly can you do it? The better you can do these two things, the better chance you have of evading a tackle. Watch this video of Jason Robinson to see these two things performed by a master:

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For developing power in a change of direction I like to utilise zig zag bounds. When performing this

drill make sure you maintain good tall posture throughout. Aim for short, sharp contacts with the floor, and complete extension of the hip, knee and ankle with every stride. The movement should be two-fold on each bound: sideways and forwards.

Perform 8-10 bounds per side per set, for 3-5 sets total, resting 3-4 minutes between sets. Aim for as max displacement sideways and forwards as you can with each bound that still allows you to make short, sharp contacts with floor.

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Tackling

Again I have not included the sprint/run which precedes the tackle itself. This analysis relates only to the time immediately before and during the tackle itself. In contrast to carrying through contact- which is a cyclic activity where you must make several powerful strides- tackling typically tends to entail a single explosive effort, although a leg drive can occasionally be used to drive the attacker back.

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As you can see from the table and the image of Manu Tuilagi below it, the tackle involves a powerful triple extension of the lower body, creating a ton of horizontal force to overcome the attacking player, with a good deal of isometric strength from the upper body. For this reason I’ve selected the diving medicine ball throw as my favourite exercise to increase power output in the tackle.

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To perform the exercise select a 5-7kg medicine ball you can and stand with your feet hip width apart in front of either a crash mat or a big stack of tackle or ruck pads. Dip down into a half squat position and launch the load as far as you can. Aim to push the floor away and fully extend with every rep. Repeat for for 4-8 reps for 3-5 sets with full rest periods of 3-4 minutes between sets.

Next week we will be looking at special strength drills for the back three. In the meantime, if you’d like to give some feedback, leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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