by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In coaching there is no greater reward than to see one of your athletes achieve their goals. Mike MacDonald is one of my former players who has been on an improving path for a number of years, and now is near the top of his game as a professional rugby player. As with all international loosehead props, the road to higher performance levels is paved with years of hard scrummaging sessions and competitive matches. I have been fortunate to have had coached Mike for a number of years at the collegiate and international level. “Mac” as he is known, has truly developed into a world-class prop.
Mike has had a break in his pro team’s schedule, and recently travelled back home to the San Francisco area for some rest and recovery. During this time he was kind enough to stop by the Doc Hudson Fieldhouse. Here is some of our conversation.
Coach Tom Billups: Body profile, arm tactics and the importance of the engagement are cornerstones of successful scrummaging, give our readers at rugbyrugby.com your thoughts on these areas?
Mike MacDonald: The first thing I would address is a proper body profile. To be able to have a low set up and a straight back upon engagement allows you to apply the most force. Along with this, always have your head up. Imagine having a pair of glasses on and trying to look out the top portion of the lens. This will give you the upper hand against an opponent who is higher. In scrummaging, as in other contact sports, the lower man will win the individual contest.
The second area you mention is arm tactics, I consider this to be a quick arm bind. Coming from a loose head’s point of view, I like the bind where it is like a quick hook, almost like a boxer. If you can catch a tight head with a slow bind, it allows you to open up his ribs and makes it easier for you to get under him. Coming from a tight heads point of view, you want to keep your right arm and hand as close together as you can. On engagement, try to clamp down on a loose heads arm as he shoots it through. By keeping him in a smaller space, through these arm tactics, you are making his target a smaller area, and less powerful.
The third area was the speed of engagement. If you can beat your opponent to the hit, it puts them at a disadvantage because not only are you going forward, you are better able to maintain the ideal body profile throughout the scrum.
TB: Ideally a prop would be competent at both the loosehead and tighthead sides of the scrum, what has been your experience?
MM: It’s always a good thing to be able to play both, but not if it puts you at a disadvantage. At a young age, you should try both to see which side you as best at but as you grow as a player, you will see where you are more comfortable. Being able to play both sides is a hard thing because people always say that it is easier to play tighthead because all you do is push., but that is far from the case. After the hit in a scrum, the body angles that are needed are completely different. So I would say that while being able to play on either side of the scrum is a great thing, make sure you are solid on one side before trying to master the other.
TB: When it comes to strength and conditioning for a prop, which is more valuable, strength or conditioning?
MM: This is a good question in that a lot of young props coming into the game are told to focus on their strength because all they do is push. This isn’t even half the answer. In today’s game of rugby, every position needs to be able to get around the field and make an impact, whether it be running with the ball, hitting a ruck or making a tackle. Now in the case of a prop, you do need to have strength to hold up the scrum you do this by using you legs, upper body, and core stabilizing muscles. However you also use your lungs ! You can be as strong as a bull, but if you aren’t able run hard enough to put yourself into a position to make plays around the field, all the work you have done in the weight room has gone for nothing. As I have been told many times in my playing career, you can never be too fit.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand, the U.S. and England for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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