Rúaidhrí O’Connor – www.independent.ie
Roger Wilson arrived in America with a lifetime in rugby behind him and an ambition to establish himself as a strength and conditioning coach.
The former Ulster, Northampton and Ireland No 8 retired at the end of the 2016/’17 season and moved to Dallas last May with his wife Nathalia and their young family.
He set up an externship at the Michael Johnson Performance Centre and, while working at the famous Olympian’s training centre for elite athletes and talking to his colleagues with a background in American football, he formulated a plan that has led to him starting an innovative new business whereby he’ll coach promising young players rugby tackling techniques honed during his professional career.
Just this week, the ‘New York Times’ reported that high schools in New Jersey are struggling to field teams as a result of fears over concussion. Things are a long way from that in the home of ‘Friday Night Lights’, but even in a hotbed like Texas numbers are down.
Wilson believes that improved, rugby-style tackle techniques can help protect players.
“It was just talking to a lot of the American footballers at different levels from High School, College or NFL – they are fascinated by rugby. Especially the kids, they’ll ask you a million questions about it,” he recalls.
“Just chatting to some of them about the concussion topic and when you ask them how they are taught to tackle, I couldn’t believe the way they were told to do it. They said they were told to run head first at each other and just drive straight forward with the head.
“I was wondering how this is effective and how is it good for you? It’s a recipe for injury. The concussion topic back home has been in the media for a good few years now, but over here it’s just as big – if not bigger.
“The participation levels in American football have been in decline. The way we tackle in rugby, with our shoulders and keeping our head out of contact because we don’t have the protective padding – a lot of people suggested that this is something I should really do.
“Mums aren’t allowing their kids to play football any more, because of the risks and how dangerous they think it is. So, I did a lot of research into it and went to watch a lot of youth football (6-18), training sessions and games, and I was surprised by the way they were coaching the tackle. A lot of times they were saying the right things, but they weren’t implementing them.
“Really basic things like getting the head on the wrong side of the tackle, exposing the head to a vulnerable position…”
Wilson also took into account the notion that his son, Nico, might soon be playing the most popular sport in his new home.
“I looked into it for a month or so and felt it was a good option, but also having a son myself who isn’t too far in the next couple of years from potentially playing American Football over here – I wouldn’t be happy with him playing the way the kids are tackling. So, the father side of it had a big part in it too. It was never really planned from the beginning, but people said this is what we need.”
Rugby-style tackling has become fashionable at the top level with the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks famously adopting the technique.
In an American football hotbed like Texas, Wilson freely admits that he has to change some perceptions of rugby as he grows TackleSmart.com from the ground up.
“It could be difficult to break into the older side of it, so that’s why I’m targeting the youth football of 6-18 because they are the ones who are starting out and will benefit most in the long run,” he explains.
“There is a perception over here about rugby; they love the physical element, but they see rugby tackling as almost not offensive tackling – more going around the legs and soaking, carrying their momentum and that it may not work in American football.
“But that’s not necessarily true, the way we were taught in professional rugby was to offensively tackle, to knock players back and not soak. So it’s sometimes about showing people that you can use your shoulders and knock a player backwards rather than soak yards. I can understand, chatting to people, that in the NFL they have got to stop players dead as quickly as possible to stop them getting yardage up field.
“But the technique is so poor in my opinion that they have the vulnerability to being sidestepped at the start, the amount of missed tackles is crazy, but also whenever they actually make the tackle and get their head on the wrong side they are exposing themselves to really bad head impacts.
“Sometimes, the way the kids talk it’s almost like concussion is a badge of honour and so there’s a macho culture of big hits, it’s trying to change that a wee bit because it is a difficult thing to do.
“People watch American football and one of the big reasons they love the sport is because of the big hits. You can’t get away from that, but the thing I’m trying to get across is that you can still have big hits while using your shoulder instead of putting your head in the wrong position.”
This week in Chicago the Irish national team are part of a big push to make rugby more popular in the US, but in the heart of American football country Wilson is trying to show those playing America’s game the benefits of the rugby tackle.