A-K Valley football program borrow rugby philosophies, players
Andrew Bigler didn’t play football for two years, but he doesn’t expect to feel too rusty when he returns to the field for his senior season this fall.
Although Bigler didn’t wear pads or a helmet, he still did plenty of running, catching and tackling as a member of the Kiski Valley rugby team, and he believes that experience only will help him as he rejoins Burrell’s football team.
“It helps you with your tackling,” said the 6-foot-5 Bigler, who could line up at wide receiver for Burrell this season. “It also helps you with running the ball strong. So after you make a catch, you can run through more people because in rugby there’s no blocking, so you’ve got to adapt to not having any help. On the football field, you have help, which helps you to be a better ball carrier.”
The Alle-Kiski Valley has a pair of strong boys rugby programs with the Burrell Buckheads and the Kiski Valley Titans, who finished as state runner-up this spring. And given the amount of crossover between the two sports, some local football teams expect to take advantage of their players’ skills this season.
“My philosophy on it is the more activities that our athletes can play, the better,” Burrell football coach Shawn Liotta said. “I’m all for them. If all our guys want to play rugby, I’m good with all of our football players playing rugby. We’re fortunate we have a few that do, and they’re good tacklers. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”
Rugby is drawing more interest among football coaches because of the worry about concussions.
The tackling style in rugby doesn’t involve the head, which lessens the risk of concussions. The Seattle Seahawks began emphasizing a rugby-style tackle several years ago for that reason, with coach Pete Carroll dubbing it the “Hawk Tackle.”
Kiski Valley boys rugby coach Seth Erwin taught the technique with the Apollo-Ridge and Kiski Area football teams last year, and he hopes to do the same again if camp schedules can get worked out.
“We want to get their head out of contact and show them how to get shoulder leverage, which is still just as effective,” Erwin said. “Plus it keeps you safe. It gets your head out, and the possibility of concussions, the percentage goes way down with proper technique.”
Rugby-style tackling involves leading with the shoulder, with contact above the shoulders not permitted.
“It teaches you to get lower with your tackles and keep your head up, not leading with your head like the older coaches usually coach,” said Burrell senior Austin Mele, a member of the Burrell Buckheads. “Using your head as a weapon, (we’re) trying to get away from that technique and trying to get it safer.”
Erwin said when he teaches football teams tackling technique, they start players off without pads before putting them back on.
“We see how they react,” he said. “Do they go back to the old-school, head-on-ball? I grew up playing football and heard that a thousand times during practice. ... Sometimes that’s good, but other times that’s bad because if you get your head on the ball, you’re putting your head cross-chest and now you’re putting your head at the primary point of contact.”
The traditional, 15-a-side rugby also emphasizes teamwork.
“Rugby, it made me a better player, person, everything,” said Highlands senior Cameron Taylor, who played the sport for the first time this spring as a member of Kiski Valley. “It’s one of those things, like basketball makes you better with your footwork. It just made me a better football player, and it opened up more opportunities than I could even imagine, honestly.”
In addition to 15s rugby, there are sevens. Each team has seven players to a side, making the field more wide open and thus teaching different skills than the format with more players.
“It’s definitely for more open-field running, and you have to make a tackle or he’s getting by you and scoring,” said Burrell senior R.J. Beach, a member of the Buckheads. “It helps with endurance, too.”
Bigler hopes to bring more than just his rugby skills to the gridiron this fall. He’s also hoping Kiski Valley’s rugby success rubs off on the Burrell football team, which is seeking its first playoff bid since 2012.
“I would just say it helps give you a more aggressive attitude towards everything,” Bigler said. “Hopefully I can bring that from rugby into football.”