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If NFL Players Played for USA Rugby, Would All Blacks Still Be King?

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIOctober 28, 2014

Soldier Field will play host to the All Blacks this weekend.
Soldier Field will play host to the All Blacks this weekend.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The All Blacks have touched down in Chicago ahead of their game against the USA rugby team at Soldier Field this weekend. While the All Blacks will enter the game as comfortable favourites, it will certainly be an experience for them, as well as their American counterparts.

It must be refreshing for one thing. Coming from a country where rugby is king and these men are the biggest superstars in the nation, they are now in a land where they are relatively unknown as individuals. It is a different football, the American kind, which captures the public's imagination in the USA. That is where many of their top athletes are.

But imagine if rugby did carry the same lure as the NFL to these American superstar athletes. How would they fare against the rugby world's best, the All Blacks?

It is an argument that you will see trotted out time and again, particularly on social media threads where there has been some form of culture clash between New Zealanders and Americans. One point of view suggests that the All Blacks are the best and any "if's" are irrelevant; another suggests that if the USA cared more about rugby, they would be the best. 

Of course, there is always middle ground in these debates too. The reality is likely to be somewhere in this middle ground too.

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Having access to better athletes, better trainers and better facilities, would no doubt help USA rugby. However the same could be said about any country in any sport. Imagine how much better the Australian rugby team would be if their top NRL players switched codes.

It is an undeniable argument. However, the USA does make a very good case for dramatic improvement given their reputation for producing outstanding athletes, their world-class training technologies and systems, as well as the sheer size of their population.

Where the argument comes unstuck is if it strays into suggesting how much better this would make them. In reality it is something that is not really known until it has actually happened.

Being a good athlete does not make you a good rugby player, and having a team of them does not mean you will be a good rugby team. 

It helps having electrifying, strong running backs in rugby. They are the ones who will attract the attention of the defence and create opportunities for you.

But that is not where the game is won. The game is won up front, by the forwards. Through setting a good platform here, you can launch your backs and give them good ball on the front foot. Failing to set the platform will cause them to be constantly attacking with defenders in their faces. Where the platform is that bad, they will not even get the ball.

Where American Football is a game primarily made up of short, high-intensity bursts, rugby is a longer grind, particularly in the forward positions. The forwards must have high aerobic fitness bases, as they do not stop running, and their ability to keep up a decent pace for the whole game to get to the breakdown quickly is of the highest importance. 

Rugby is a game that is won up front in the forward positions.
Rugby is a game that is won up front in the forward positions.Matt King/Getty Images

This is a key reason why the All Blacks are so good. They have the fittest team in world rugby. Their forwards are relentless, making a tackle, getting up and making another one. Getting to a breakdown, then breaking into a fast jog, or sometimes sprint, to get to the next one 20 or 30 metres away.

It is not just enough to get there, though. You then have to be effective, by cleaning out the opposition players trying to steal the ball, which is where some size is important.

While many NFL players can clearly hit hard, it is a whole different thing to maintain the mental ability to get psyched up to make a big hit after 30 minutes of running and contact. That is where the difference lies, in terms of the contact situations.

On top of this, they have to be technically proficient in the scrum and the lineout, which are two skills that need to be learnt over time, as well as having some ball skills.

It is here where the NFL does not naturally produce players who would fit the bill, and the USA would have to adjust. 

American Football is a game that has far more specified roles, whereas rugby is a game where everyone has to be able to do at least little bit of everything. This means that NFL players can train in a way that enables them to maximise their abilities, both skill and athletic, in the areas that need to be maximised.

American Football is a game of more specialised roles than rugby.
American Football is a game of more specialised roles than rugby.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There is both a positive and negative to this, in terms of the argument of NFL athletes playing rugby, at least. The positive is that it would suggest that it would simply mean the players would have to take the time to train up their other areas. Rather than just focussing on short, anaerobic bursts and quick recovery, they would have to complement this with the ability to keep going for a more sustained time with less recovery.

The negative is that it would mean they would have less time to train their specific areas, meaning they would become more well-rounded, but probably less proficient in their current areas of expertise.

From this point of view, we can see the differences between the two sports more easily, at least in terms of how the players would adapt. Obviously the skill sets are different. But looking at it purely from an athlete perspective, it would not be infeasible to suggest that it would not take long for elite athletes to pick up the skills required to excel at the other.

Then comes the next thing, which would cause a transition period: time. The difference between playing the top rugby teams in the world and everyone else is the pace of the game. A team like the All Blacks plays the game so quickly that there is such little time to execute the skills you have.

They are so good at disorganizing a defence, or putting an attack under pressure, that often an otherwise good team will be made to look unskilled. They operate largely off instinct, something that has been drilled into them since they were little kids and has come from picking up cues that have become inherent in New Zealand culture.

You see it whenever any team plays against someone a level above or beneath themselves. It takes a period of adjustment to get used to an opponent playing at an increased speed, no matter how good you are.

These are the two key reasons why having good athletes does not necessarily equate to having good rugby players. Sure it helps. But rugby is a game where being able to run a fast 10-mile time is just as important as running a fast 40-yard dash, as well as having to rely largely on instinct to operate at the top level.

Ultimately rugby is a team game. A good team will wear you down, manipulating the defence so you cannot stop an attack, or do whatever they can to nullify your attacking weapons.

Being big, fast and strong does not mean you cannot be tackled. Unless you have another string to your bow, generally you are not going to get very far in the game. Jonah Lomu did it, as did Rupeni Caucaunibuca, but there have been very few others, and the chances of doing it in the modern game are increasingly unlikely.

Consider Julian Savea, probably the most destructive player in world rugby today. He was billed as a hugely talented athlete, but it was not until he developed the ability to pass, catch, kick and read a game that he became a quality rugby player.

In particular, it was his difficulties under the high ball that was a glaring weakness in his game and made him a liability. Since fixing this, he has been far more effective. On top of this, his intelligence has improved, and he now comes into the line at the right times, has better positional play, and makes sure the team gets the most out of his physical abilities.

Again these are things that could be taught, but they are not learned overnight.

Having good athletes is a start. But aerobic fitness, developing a skill set and instinct to know when to use it, as well as having a relentless forward pack are just as important. 

Comparing the two sports really is like comparing apples and oranges. They are different games with different skill sets. But athletes are athletes no matter what sport they play or what country they are from.

How one sport's athletes would go in another sport is a fairly trivial topic too. It is all speculation, but it sure is fun to speculate and makes for some interesting debates.

Speaking of debates, why not give us your take on the topic in the comments section below?

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