Acceleration tips for defenders

Extra pressure from your defence on your opponent's key decision makers may be the split-second difference between success and failure. The ability to get good acceleration from a standing start is the vital component to this.

The feet

Sprint research says that the most effective sprint start is where the front foot is in line with the back knee (for example, the right foot is in line with the left knee). This can optimise the elastic nature of the leg muscles meaning the best boost off the mark. It is also the easiest position for a rugby player to correctly align in the heat of a game. Sprinters may have minor adjustments to this, but remember they have the benefit of blocks to rest their feet on.

Practise getting the feet into the right place by having the players go down on one knee and putting the foot on the other leg in line with the knee. They then rise into a crouch position, sprint and then reset. The more this can be repeated, the more likely a good habit will be formed.

The arms

The speed of the arms in a sprint has a strong influence on the speed of the legs. Once out of the "blocks," the arms need to be pumping as fast as they can. 

The arms need to work in opposite directions to the movement of the legs. Promoting the same leg and arm forward in the sprint start position is a trap that many non-sprinters fall into.

There are a couple of rugby fitness and speed drills to help you counteract the same arm and leg forward set-up:

  1. Start with the right hand on the floor in line with the left foot, if the left foot is the furthest forward and vice versa.
  2. Again assuming it's the left foot that's furthest forward, have the right hand behind the back.

The head

Sprinters focus ahead. Initially they look only at the first few feet on the ground in front of them, something which is impractical for running in rugby.

However, the line of sight can still be restricted to allow the maximum sprint. The sprint defender does not need to see the bigger picture, only the player he is to chase down. Defensive guards and the outside defenders can cover the other aspects.

So the head should be focused ahead, probably at hip height, with the peripheral vision used to see when the ball is going to be released. The most astute player will be able to tell from the movement of their target when the ball is released.


The centre of gravity of the body must be forward. However it also needs to be controlled. The shoulders should be beyond the knees. The hand on the ground can help maintain this in balance. Players should also be on the balls of their feet, with their toes ready to spring forward.

Rugby drills can focus on reaction times while maintaining balance, such as not moving before the ball comes out from the back of a ruck or maul. Drills should be based on real situations.

For example, use the scrum half's pass to an attacker to replicate the moment of release for the sprint defender. Be tough on offside and reaction times. Turn the rugby coaching drill into a competition with positive and negative points for good speed or going offside.

This article is taken from the Better Rugby Coaching e-newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free rugby drills and skills twice a week.

Click here for more sprint and rugby fitness tips.

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